When young Saudi Arabian director Abdulmohsen Aldhabaan set out to make his debut feature “Last Visit” filmmaking and movie theaters were still banned in his country.
That changed suddenly in late 2017 when Saudi’s 35-year-old religion-related ban was lifted as part of social and economic reforms. So the director and his producer immediately turned in their screenplay to authorities and applied for a shooting permit, which they got despite the fact that their father-and-son drama depicting generational conflict pushes boundaries in several ways.
Thematically “Last Visit” exposes “masculine culture and patriarchy as I know it,” says Aldhabaan, adding that the 16-year-old son in his film who is named Walid (played by Abdullah Al-Fahad) simply can’t relate to Saudi Arabia’s conservative traditions.
“With kids his age in Saudi today, it’s not even a matter of revolting against the past,” he says. “They actually just don’t understand it.”
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Walid and his father Nasser (played by Osama Alqess) travel from a big modern city to a rural village where Nasser’s own father is on his deathbed in the home of his uncle and two male cousins. There Walid refuses to adhere to prayer and other conservative customs, isolating himself from the other men in his family by wearing a huge set of wireless headphones.
Though you practically see only men on screen throughout the whole film, “the majority of the crew were women,” the director notes, adding that when they shot outdoors the presence of these women, some of whom did not wear headscarves, “was problematic.”
At first “people were upset, and the town revolted on social media with posts such as: ‘these people are coming to our town, and they are making cinema, which is dangerous!’,” says producer Mohammed Alhamoud.
Having a regular shooting permit really saved them. “Without it we never would have finished the movie,” he notes. “We had a lot of outdoor scenes and we didn’t want people to harass us.” That fear soon subsided, though, to the point that by the end of the shoot some of the people who had complained had become extras.
Aldhabaan’s “Last Visit” journey started with his becoming an ardent cinephile by watching movies on VHS and DVD that he selected largely thanks to an online forum through which he learned “about Bergman and Scorsese.” Then in 2006 he started working as a film critic and reporter, catching his films in nearby Bahrain. In 2008 with Alhamoud and others Aldhabaan co-founded the Riyadh-based Talashi Film Group, a collective of film buffs.
“Last Visit,” which launched from the Karlovy Vary fest and is now competing in Marrakech, is likely to get Middle East distribution though it’s still not certain whether and when it will play in Saudi.
“Before we produced the film it passed censorship, but we have not yet submitted the finished product,” says Alhamoud.