Mohamed Al Salman’s debut feature, “Raven Song,” had its world premiere at the Red Sea Film Festival on Friday, screening in Official Competition. The pic is about 30-year-old Nasser, who has been diagnosed with a brain tumor, but whose life is turned upside down when he meets an enigmatic young woman. The Saudi Film Commission has selected the film to represent Saudi Arabia for the 2023 Academy Awards.
Al Salman completed the NYFA One-Year Filmmaking Conservatory program in 2019. His previous short films include two shorts in Netflix’s “Six Windows in the Desert” film collection: “27th of Shaban” and “Curtain.”
The Saudi director talked with Variety about the film, his career and future plans.
How did you become a filmmaker in a country where cinemas were banned until 2017?
I wasn’t fascinated with cinema as a kid, but my Dad loved using digital cameras. My elder brother used them to chronicle our childhood in a stylistic way. I began my career as an engineer, but in 2012, a good friend asked me to join the local theater club. I agreed and began acting in plays and we started going to theater festivals. It made me feel like a kid again. The experience activated my left brain. I fell in love with the arts.
In around 2013, I started working with a friend to make local documentaries, which we posted on YouTube. I was editing and shooting, and he was the director. Then in 2014 I decided to make my first short film, “Amongst,” which is a three and a half minute experimental film, with no dialogue. It was shot in one location with a single character. It’s a story of being trapped being two ideologies.
Where did you show your first short film?
I always aimed to achieve sufficient quality to be shown in film festivals. Fiction made for YouTube tends to be sketches and doesn’t need real space or believable characters. My target was always the big screen. My first short “Amongst” was screened in the Saudi Film Festival in 2015, when there were still no cinemas in the country. That was only the second edition of the festival, the first had been in 2008. The festival was founded and is run by Ahmed-Al-Mulla, who has been a pioneer for us. Then I shot my second short film, “Tongue,” in my home town of Al-Hasa, which explored Islamic magic. I’m above all interested in films that represent my culture.
When did you write the script for “Raven Song”?
Just after I finished my second short, “Tongue.” I knew I wanted to do a feature film, but I wanted to make more shorts to get more experience. So I made two more films – “27th of Shaban” and “Curtain.” I was lucky that when I finished my first draft for “Raven Song” it was chosen for funding in the Saudi Film Commission’s Daw Film Competition. They paid about 75% of the budget. The rest was covered by equity financing provided by me and by private investors.
How was your experience at the New York Film Academy in 2019?
It was a very good experience that helped me fine tune my understanding of technical aspects. Above all I have learned from watching films, but studying at the NYFA helped me refresh my knowledge. I’d also previously studied in the U.S. as an exchange student while studying engineering.
What has been the impact of having “Raven Song” nominated as Saudi Arabia’s submission to the 2023 Academy Awards?
It has had a huge impact on the marketing for the film. It meant a lot to the cast and crew. It was a tough shoot, all filmed in 20 days in 2021, with a lot of locations and visual FX. The nomination has been a very good validation for us.
How do you view the current film scene in Saudi Arabia?
It’s a golden era for us. Every country seems to have had a moment when many opportunities arise, and a new generation of filmmakers emerges. Maybe France had it with the New Wave. Paul Thomas Anderson has talked about the importance of the American indie film boom in the 1990s when everyone was looking for new voices. We’re living such a moment. I have the chance to make the film in the style I want. It’s a good time for us to experiment and see how audiences are reacting. To see what works with local taste. I’ve always wanted to make films with the Saudi local audience in mind. I’m not interested in making films that primarily appeal to western audiences.
You’ve invested your own money in all your films?
Yes! In all my short films, and also in “Raven Song.” I have been lucky to earn money from every short film. For example, I sold my first film to the independent cinema circuit. I sold my second film to the national broadcaster, SBC. People are thirsty to see Saudi films. I’m always reinvesting my profits.
What is your next project?
I am writing a treatment for my second feature film. I plan to shoot it in my home town, Al-Hasa, where I also shot “Tongue.” The main character is an old man who is reacting to changes in society.