Across a large swathe of West Asia, the year 2021 for the entertainment industry has marked a time of monumental change, as well as fierce resistance.
Saudi Arabia in December held its first major international film festival, following the removal four years ago of a 35-year ban on cinema for religious reasons. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, movie theaters have been shuttered as the country’s Islamic militant guerrillas-turned-rulers decide whether they will allow movie screenings. Taliban authorities have also issued a series of “religious guidelines” under which Afghanistan’s TV networks can’t broadcast soap operas or dramas featuring female actors.
Meanwhile, censors in Arab-speaking nations across most of the region, which is also referred to as the Middle East, continued in 2021 to ban Hollywood films touching on sensitive religious or political issues, sex and homosexuality, such as Marvels’ “Eternals,” featuring the first MCU gay superhero, and “West Side Story” which has a transgender character named Anybodys portrayed by non-binary actor Iris Menas.
Yet, aside from the clock being turned back in Afghanistan and other instances of backlash, the overall sense is that the Arab film and TV industry is making a quantum leap forward in breaking cultural taboos and achieving greater growth.
As Egyptian-American filmmaker Dina Amer points out, in Saudi Arabia “you used to have to smuggle DVDs into the country in order to watch any kind of film.”
By contrast, in early December, Amer’s potent drama “You Resemble Me,” which explores the roots of Islamic radicalization through the story of Hasna Aït Boulahcen, who in 2015 was wrongly believed to be Europe’s first female suicide bomber, played at Saudi’s inaugural Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah where it scored the audience award.
The fact that this “very radical and subversive film,” as Amer puts it, “about how an Arab French woman gets radicalized by an ideology that was essentially birthed and exported in the rest of the world from Saudi Arabia,” played in Saudi feels like a huge achievement.
Also screening at the Red Sea fest was Maggie Gyllenhaal’s “The Lost Daughter” which features passionate sex scenes, some including partial nudity, and other pics where lovemaking was shown on screen and nobody batted an eye, though in some cases there were giggles in the audience.
At the Cairo Film Festival the previous week, a coming-out doc ironically titled “Fiasco” won two prizes. In the film, Lebanese first-time director Nicolas Khoury candidly turns the camera on himself and with humor depicts his gentle rebellion against the social and sexual boundaries set by his family and Lebanese society. “Fiasco” was placed in a late-night slot in Cairo to keep it under the radar in a country where gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are known to be the target of violence. But the movie still screened.
Interestingly, Egypt was not among the countries that banned “Eternals,” which also played in the United Arab Emirates.
Ignace Lahoud, chief executive of Vox Cinemas, which is West Asia’s largest exhibition chain, says that in the region, “censorship is a reality in this industry,” noting that exhibitors must be respectful of each country’s regulations. Still, the fact that “Eternals” was not banned everywhere in his patch can be considered a step forward. “The UAE has evolved dramatically from where it was 10 or 15 years ago in terms of what is accepted,” Lahoud notes. On Monday the UAE’s Media Regulatory Office announced on Twitter that it had introduced a new over 21 age rating to its rating system under which the uncensored international version of movies will be shown, though details remain vague.
Vox entered Saudi three years ago, joining what Lahoud calls “the gold rush” to expand screens in one of the world’s last untapped movie markets. Box office revenue in Saudi has grown to become West Asia’s top market, now expected to triple from $150 million in 2020 to $450 million in 2021, according to research firm Omdia, which forecasts Saudi Arabia to be the tenth largest theatrical market in the world by 2025.
Others are a bit more cautious, including Lahoud, who says Vox, which to date has opened 15 cinemas in six Saudi cities –– accounting for 154 of Saudi’s current roughly 500 screens –– is “still learning from the [Saudi] market,” though there’s certainly “still room for growth.”
Other regional exhibitors, speaking on background, fear a slowdown at the Saudi box office now that live music events are gaining traction since being allowed in the country in 2019, a watershed moment that Saudi DJ Ahmad Alammary, aka Baloo, describes as “our version of the Berlin Wall falling.”
Alammary is chief creative officer at Saudi state-funded promoter MDL Beast, organizers of the now massive Soundstorm electronic dance music festival, the second edition of which kicked off in Riyadh on Dec. 17 with 180,000 people in attendance and female Saudi DJ and producer Cosmicat spinning discs alongside top international EDM stars David Guetta, Armin Van Buuren, and Tiesto.
Regardless of the size of Saudi Arabia’s theatrical market’s growth prospects, what’s clear is that it’s now beginning to foster a film and TV industry as it diversifies from an oil-based economy.
The kingdom’s announced $64 billion overall investment in the entertainment sector is expected to keep flowing over the next decade, becoming a bonanza for film and TV producers in the region and beyond.
During the Red Sea fest, a flurry of industry announcements were made, including Saudi’s new up to 40% production rebate, which aims to lure more international shoots such as tentpoles like the $100 million sandals-and-camels epic “Desert Warrior,” featuring an all-star international cast led by “Captain America” star Anthony Mackie.
That movie has been shooting in NEOM, a planned futuristic city situated in the northwest of the kingdom being developed by former Fox exec Wayne Borg into a “state-of-the-art” media hub. “Warrior” is bankrolled by Saudi-owned broadcasting giant MBC, as is Gerard Butler auctioneer “Kandahar,” another big-budget movie with Hollywood elements that’s now shooting in Saudi’s AlUla region.
On the political front, Hollywood is tiptoeing back into Saudi following the hiatus caused by the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and reports that appear to implicate Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the assassination that prompted media companies from the U.S. and elsewhere to pull out.
Just prior to the Red Sea fest, Justin Bieber performed in Jeddah during the first Formula One Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, despite calls from Khashoggi’s wife and human rights campaigners for him to cancel the show.
Should Bieber have heeded their call? The question came up in conversations during the Red Sea fest. Filmmaker Dina Amer’s position is clear: “What you have is an unprecedented shift in the cultural policy,” she says.
“The whole world should be encouraging Saudi Arabia and the government to have artists come,” Amer adds, pointing out that in the wake of the Khashoggi murder, the U.S. government has not taken any concrete action against the Saudi kingdom. “By asking artists — not governments — to boycott Saudi Arabia you are just punishing the Saudi people,” she notes.
SRMG, a Saudi Arabian publishing and media company that is publicly traded, is a minority investor in PMC, Variety’s parent company.
(Pictured: Red Sea International Film Festival chairman Mohammed Al-Turki greets British model Naomi Campbell as she arrives at the Red Sea International Film Festival)