For a country where theaters are banned, Saudi Arabia made a strong showing at Dubai’s inaugural Gulf Film Festival in April, contributing a total of 20 shorts, docs and features.
Although most of the efforts were shorts, Saudi filmmakers submitted two full-length features to the competition with the kingdom’s first horror pic, “The Forgotten Village” directed by Abdulla Abo Talib and Mamoun Bonni’s comedy “Sabah alil” (Good Morning Night), which won the runner-up prize in the official competish.
The film’s lead actor Rashid Al Shamrani also took home a special jury prize for his role as a time-traveling truck driver whose intimate knowledge of Arab soap operas sees him re-writing history a la “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.”
The two features are among the first generation of films shot by Saudi nationals, following the 2006 release of “How Are Things?,” which was screened theatrically everywhere in the region except for Saudi Arabia, where mixed sex audiences remains a taboo.
But industry execs are optimistic about the prospect of Saudi officials lifting its ban on cinemas in the wake of the country’s first film fest held in Dammam this May.
“The (Saudi) government is indirectly saying, we don’t mind showing films,” says UAE-based distrib Front Row’s Gianluca Chacra.
The opening of cinemas in populous Saudi Arabia would be seen as a major boost to the regional film industry, where indigenous pics only sell 50,000 tickets on average across the entire Gulf area, according to Chacra.
Saudi Arabia is the region’s most lucrative market with an estimated population of 27 million dwarfing the combined total populations of its cinema-going neighbors in Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE.
“If Saudi Arabia opens theaters, it’s going to be a big change in the region,” says filmmaker Faisal Al-Duwaisan. “We will be able to have an industry — and a budget for our ideas.”
Events such as the Gulf Film Fest and Saudi Arabia’s own event are helping to reduce apprehensions about filming in the kingdom.
“When I first came, I didn’t know any Saudi filmmakers,” says 25-year-old Saudi helmer Abduljalil Al Nasser. “We don’t have any structured way to meet other filmmakers. It’s just not accepted to see someone outside with a tripod shooting. Having festivals will ease things. We need to send a message to the Saudi people and the government that we are here, we want film theaters, we want to be part of this.”