The thunderous applause that erupted in the dark cinema as the credits rose signaled a watershed moment in Saudi filmmaking. Last month, the private screening of “Valley Road” for the cast and crew left many visibly touched, and not just because of their connection to the film.
“The film landscape in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will forever be divided into the films that came before ‘Valley Road’ and those that follow in its wake,” says producer Majed Z. Samman, who is the head of Performing Arts & Cinema at Ithra (also known as The King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture), which is one of the largest film producers in the kingdom.
Samman has reason to be bullish, as the film breaks new ground on several levels. “Valley Road” shows the quality filmmaking Saudi Arabia can produce as the country aspires to become a global film hub. The film features Saudi talent in front of and behind the camera, nurturing a new generation of film creatives. It is also award-winning independent filmmaker Khalid Fahad’s feature debut, which was produced by Rakan Anneghaimshi, and stars Mohammed El Shehri (“The Fates Hotel,” “Sekket Safar” and “Exit 7”); singer, influencer and TV star Aseel Omran; and 10-year-old Hamad Farhan in his first acting role.
“Valley Road” follows the odyssey of Ali (Farhan), a young boy with selective mutism who gets lost on the way to see a doctor in a nearby village. He finds himself alone in the middle of nowhere and needs to overcome a series of challenges.
“I wanted to present a unique cinematic experience,” director Fahad says about the fantasy adventure that doesn’t shy away from suspense or drama.
When “Valley Road” is released in 2023, after its world premiere closing the Red Sea Film Festival, it will become the first Saudi production to secure a G rating. “This is an innately Saudi story and an inextricably Saudi film, so it’s only fitting that it premieres on Saudi ground at this prestigious festival,” says Samman.
Meanwhile, Omran says the film is indicative of the golden age Saudi cinema is experiencing after the film ban was lifted in 2018. “‘Valley Road’ exceeds all expectations, and it speaks to our appetite for creative content made to global standards,” the actor says.
Fahad, who also wrote the screenplay, shot entirely on location — including at a brick-and-mortar village built from scratch for the production. “Khalid boasts a prolific portfolio of short films, but this is his first feature film, and we could not be prouder to embark on this journey with him,” says Samman. “The subject of neurodiversity is close to Khalid’s heart. Representation matters, and this is an important aspect to portray on screen.”
Samman says the film is a perfect example of what Ithra hopes to achieve through its Ithra Film Productions initiative, which aims to foster the telling of original stories, nurture Saudi film talent, support the development of the wider industry and provide a platform to take Saudi films to the world.
Production was delayed by the pandemic, which Samman says elevated “Valley Road,” as it necessitated making the most of creative opportunities and resulted in more efficient filmmaking. “The film is years ahead of anything else on the Saudi cinematic landscape,” he says. “It is not only Saudi’s first family film, but it also tells a universal human story. It shows what we’re capable of.”
“Valley Road” is the latest project in Ithra’s cinematic journey, which started with the release of the experimental 2018 film “Joud,” an unconventional meditation on the cycle of life. The Ithra-supported shorts “A Swing,” by Raneem and Dana Almohandes, and “Old Phone Number,” by Ali Saeed, are also being screened at this year’s Red Sea Film Festival.
To date, Ithra has produced more than 20 films, 15 of which have received local, regional and international awards. The King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, which is the driving force behind several key programs supporting the Saudi filmmaking scene, is home to Saudi Film Production, Saudi Film Days and the Ithra Film Society, which presents a full program throughout the year. Ithra is also the cradle of the annual Saudi Film Festival, in partnership with the Cinema Association and with the support of the Film Commission.
Ithra Film Productions Projects in the Pipeline
Among the three Ithra Film Productions projects to be released is “Hajjan,” a feature film by celebrated Egyptian producer Mohamed Hefzy. Directed by Abu Bakr Shawky, it will be the Palme d’Or nominee’s return to the Cannes Film Festival since 2018’s critically acclaimed “Yomeddine.” “Hajjan” tells the coming-of-age story of a young orphan and his camel, who form a special bond and embark on a journey across the Kingdom.
It is slated to have its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, and its regional premiere at the 2023 Red Sea Film Festival before entering wide release in 2024, the U.N.’s International Year of Camelids. The cast and crew consist of aspiring Saudi talent embedded with an international crew.
Second is “Hadi Alees,” a documentary short by first-time director Abdullah Saharti that focuses on the cultural significance of the Arabian camel, and its impact reshaping the peninsula and its future. It is expected to be released via on-demand video streaming services next year.
Lastly, “Anti-Cinema,” a documentary feature with Ali and Hassan Saeed, will bring Saudi’s film history to the big screen.
The Ithra Film Productions team will be attending the 2022 Red Sea Film Festival from Dec. 1-10 at booth number 3, while Ithra’s Creative Solutions team will showcase the center’s VR work and display the program’s immersive winners from last year. For more on Ithra and its programs, visit ithra.com. Check out the official trailer for “Valley Road” here.