×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Director Mahmoud Sabbagh on Pushing Boundaries in Saudi Arabia With His New Film

Young Saudi director Mahmoud Sabbagh’s groundbreaking romcom “Barakah Meets Barakah,” about the complexities of dating among his compatriots, made a splash at the 2016 Berlinale and became his country’s contender for the foreign-language Oscar. His new film is black comedy “Amra and the Second Marriage,” in which a 40-something housewife “feels suffocated by a very closed society,” as he puts it.

Sabbagh spoke to Variety at the Cairo Film Festival about pushing the cultural envelope in Saudi Arabia, which recently ended its ban on cinemas but has now been widely condemned for orchestrating the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.

This is a government-approved production, yet it packs a feminist punch, shows pot-smoking, and features a bogus imam. How did you pull it off?

My cinema really is about pushing artistic limits, and I hope I pushed a bit further this time, though I don’t want to be too radical because I don’t want to encumber the whole experience. I have a responsibility when it comes to Saudi cinema and am still trying to circumvent censorship. But actually, though we don’t a have a prolific film scene, there are lots of TV series being produced in Saudi….Some of these shows…touch on the same issues, sometimes even more bluntly than the way I did.

Most of the actors are Saudi. How did you find them?

The first thing I did, even before any other type of pre-production, is I started casting. I would call any and all casting agents – actually, anyone I could think of – and most of the people whom I saw were not [professional] actors. I was looking for characters that fit the black comedy mold. I’d say I succeeded in casting up to 90% of the film locally. But there are some types I just could not find.

Will “Amra” be shown in Saudi Arabia?

Hopefully. In Saudi…there is a license for shooting and there is a license for screening. With the new cinemas being built…we will apply and we will see. If the film gets a[n] [age] restriction, that’s fine. If they want to make some minor cuts, as often happens in the [Persian] Gulf, that’s also fine. But I want the director’s cut to remain [intact] on most of the platforms. I’m hoping that through this film I can push the boundaries for national independent cinema in Saudi.

Has “Barakah” been shown in movie theaters in Saudi?

No, because there were no movie theaters at the time. The TV rights were bought by Saudi media conglomerate Rotana, and the Saudi national airline bought the rights to show it in their in-flight entertainment system. In order to see the movie, people I know would buy a [plane] ticket from Jeddah to Dammam, which is a two-hour flight. Then they would message me! As much as it pleased me, it also made me cringe, because seeing a movie in a very small screen is problematic. But to be honest, more than two years after “Barakah” broke out, I know that a lot of people in Saudi have seen it, whether on TV or on Netflix or on airplanes, or at festivals, or even pirated from the Internet. Also, last month I got the green light to screen “Barakah” in a public screening in Riyadh.

How did you finance “Amra”?

I continue to have patrons of the arts supporting me. They are supporting what I consider my real motive [for filmmaking], which is to promote social progress in Saudi. “Barakah” had to do with social and class hierarchies, gender hierarchies. And “Amra” has the same core: It’s about patriarchy, it’s about toxic masculinity, it’s about misogyny, it’s about philogyny and it’s about women. While I was growing up, I saw some very crushing experiences for women who had similar situations [to the film]. These were smart, well-educated women….I just felt obliged to tell this story and also to start some sort of a discussion when it comes to women’s rights.

With the big drive underway to launch a film industry in Saudi, why isn’t there a film fund for local directors?

I recently did an interview in Ocaz, a leading Saudi newspaper, in which I attacked the local film council. It’s nothing personal…I can always work things out…but my peer filmmakers in Saudi are struggling….They have a fresh storytelling approach, and they are just lingering in limbo because there is no funding yet.

From a purely pragmatic standpoint, do you perceive the Khashoggi murder as a possible setback to launching a film industry in Saudi? Especially in terms of the involvement of Hollywood and the West?

I don’t think it’s going to be a setback. The fact that “Amra and the Second Marriage” was recently shot and licensed [in Saudi] and with all these ambitious plans for cinema coming down the pipeline – I think we have to cherish this fact. There is real reform and change happening in Saudi. It’s very fast. We really are in an era of emancipating women and art. For the first time there are public endorsements for art and [art] institutions are being built. We can always discuss what should come first, but there is a new energy. It’s a mixture of top-down and grass roots. Artists and women are back in the public sphere and it’s really not a cosmetic thing. We are moving forward faster than anytime before….I’m optimistic about Saudi being able to have a spot on the international cinema map.

So if the government launches a fund, will you take their money?

I’ll be the first to apply.

[Editor’s note: The Saudi Public Investment Fund is an investor in Variety parent company Penske Media Corp.]

More Film

  • Steve James Chicago Story

    Participant Media Partners With Filmmaker Steve James on Documentary 'Chicago Story' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Participant Media is reteaming with Oscar-nominated filmmaker Steve James and his longtime production home, Kartemquin Films, on his latest documentary, “Chicago Story.” Participant Media will finance the project, which will be produced by James and Zak Piper. Participant’s Jeff Skoll and Diane Weyermann will executive produce with Alex Kotlowitz and Gordon Quinn. James, Piper, and [...]

  • 'Metro 2033' Film Project Halted Because

    'Metro 2033' Film Project Halted Because 'A Lot of Things Didn't Work'

    It appears that MGM’s film adaptation of “Metro 2033” is no longer happening because “a lot of things didn’t work,” according to VG24/7. “Metro 2033” is a novel by Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky. It was also adapted into a series of successful survival horror shooters from video game publisher THQ and developer 4A Games in [...]

  • Jirga

    Film Review: 'Jirga'

    Buried within the closing crawl of writer, director, cinematographer and co-producer Benjamin Gilmour’s unfortunately cryptic but nonetheless fascinating debut film “Jirga” are shout-outs for security, political and cultural liaisons, as well as an Afghan film advisor. These credits speak, however quietly, to the no-doubt-delicate and clearly arduous making of a film that finds a guilt-ridden [...]

  • Fox Names Benjamin Bach Theatrical MD

    Fox Names Benjamin Bach MD for Germany, Replacing Vincent  De La Tour

    Twentieth Century Fox has upped Benjamin Bach to managing director, theatrical, for Austria and Germany. In Germany he takes over from the long-serving Vincent de la Tour who is leaving after 27 years. Bach has been MD of Fox’s operations in Austria since 2012 and he steps into his new, expanded, role immediately. He will [...]

  • Lois Smith

    Wes Anderson's 'The French Dispatch' Adds Lois Smith (EXCLUSIVE)

    Lois Smith has joined the cast of Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch,” Variety has learned. It continues a late-career resurgence for the 88-year-old stage and screen actress. Smith was nominated for a Gotham and Independent Spirit Award for her work in last year’s “Marjorie Prime,” a role that garnered her some of the best reviews [...]

  • Stephan James as Fonny and Brian

    Brian Tyree Henry Breaks Out Big in Jenkins' 'If Beale Street Could Talk'

    The final days of filming writer-director Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk” were dedicated to moments that foreshadowed its entire plot: Having run into the recently incarcerated Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry) on the streets of Harlem, the struggling artist Fonny (Stephan James) invites his friend back to his apartment for [...]

  • Dylan O'Brien, Justin Theroux, Angela Bassett,

    Travis Knight on Getting the Call to Direct ‘Bumblebee’: ‘Did You Guys Get The Right Number?’

    “Bumblebee” director Travis Knight admits he couldn’t believe it when Paramount Studios and producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura called him two years ago, asking him to helm the upcoming “Transformers” movie. “My initial question was, ‘Did you guys get the right number?'” Knight joked at Sunday’s premiere of “Bumblebee” at the Chinese Theater in Los Angeles. “You’ve seen [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content