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Mahmoud Sabbagh And The ‘Challenges’ Facing Saudi Filmmakers

While helmer-writer Haifaa Al Mansour directed the first Saudi Arabian feature shot entirely within the kingdom, her charming, polished debut “Wadjda” (2012) was co-produced with Germany, and her key technicians were all German. Al Mansour, who divides her time between Bahrain and the U.S., transitioned into directing “A Storm in the Stars,” a U.S.-produced, big-budget, English-language period piece about the love affair between 18-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft and roguish older poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Pic is now in post-production. Inspirational value aside, “Wadjda” did relatively little to develop a homegrown Saudi industry, apart from setting a precedent as the first film submitted by the kingdom to the Academy Awards for foreign-language film consideration.

Now, a second Saudi feature, the independently financed, satirical comedy “Barakah Meets Barakah” is making waves at international festivals. But when you ask its helmer-writer-producer Mahmoud Sabbagh what he wants to do next, he says his focus is on building a film industry in his homeland.
“Saudis watch and consume a lot of art,” he says. “Now it’s our time to produce.”

The 33-year-old Sabbagh grew up in Jeddah where he was influenced by Egyptian films of the 1980s. After earning a master’s degree in documentary filmmaking from Columbia University, he returned home, working as a columnist for a progressive newspaper before cutting his teeth on a 10-part Web series called “Cash.” It was shot over a two-month period, which he jokingly calls his film school.

“It was new for the Saudi audience, the cutting, the ideas discussed,” he says. “It was open about how things work, about class, about gender.”

Although Sabbagh searched for a sponsor for “Cash,” he didn’t find one, so he made it available for free online. Indeed, the Internet provides the chief way that Saudi filmmakers can get their work seen by the public. Now, however, after the success of “Barakah,” the Saudi-funded, pan-Arab TV network NBC plans to run “Cash.”

Sabbagh says learning on the job created numerous production problems.

“When I made ‘Barakah Meets Barakah,’ I knew what the problems were and fixed them in advance, and the production was much smoother,” he says. “The toughest part was post, something very new for me. In my next film, I will hire a producer for post.”

“Barakah” premiered at the Berlinale Forum in February to strong reviews and media attention. French sales agent MPM Film nabbed the international rights, selling the film to Mad Solutions, which has a co-distribution pact with the Egypt-based Film Clinic for the Arab world, and an 11-country roll-out planned. Swiss and Austrian rights are already sewn up and MPM Film is in discussion with numerous other territories including the U.S.

Sabbagh is preparing his next feature, which will also revolve around Saudi youth culture, and an ambitious television series set in Jeddah during the tumultuous period of 1853-57. He says, “by doing films you create an eco-system, an industry and a culture.”

Sabbagh’s shoots have created Saudi job descriptions and introduced novel vocabulary words learned from the four Egyptian professionals who were part of his team. Production manager Mohd Jamal Eddien provided a crash training course for other crew members. Sabbagh is perhaps most proud of the fact that he and his team created a visual style that matches Jeddah’s aesthetic and pace, rather than copying Hollywood models.

No doubt in a country with only one cinema, Sabbagh and future Saudi filmmakers face enormous challenges.

“Fifty years ago, filmmaking wasn’t even thought about,” says Sabbagh. “Now there are talents everywhere. We could learn from Iran, Egyptian cinema, Dubai. We need films schools, film funds, policies, protections for cultural workers and producers. We need to professionalize the industry, provide legal frameworks, create jobs.”

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