By Alexander Woodman
Despite stereotypical Western perceptions of Saudi Arabia, its culture is complex and diverse. The country is evolving and growing at its own rate. The labor ministry has approved film production as an economic activity. This is expressed and represented in the Saudi Arabia Society of Culture and Arts. The organization is actively engaged in promoting arts and filmmaking, and the entire industry is abuzz with excitement. Instead of travelling to the neighboring nations, Saudis can now enjoy artistic and creative entertainment within their own borders. Importantly, those who are involved in the art and film industry can now look forward to expanding the field. Additionally, young prospective artists may not have to go abroad to realize their goal and dreams.
The Saudi Arabia Society for Culture and Arts, in collaboration with King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, organized its 4th Saudi Film Festival. The event was held on March 27 - April 1st 2017 in Aramco. The joint effort is an exceptional partnership. It uses culture and entertainment as the central elements to increase the quality of life in society. The event organizers' goals are to develop the local art and cultural scene, improve the quality of Saudi movies, and to encourage young creative talents to share and exchange ideas. The event also creates an opportunity for filmmakers to learn from local and international experts in the industry. The Festival acts as a platform for filmmakers to showcase their films, to interact with the public, to develop the Saudi film industry, and to preserve the Saudi culture.
The filmmakers had to go through a preliminary nomination process. The best participants were selected to enter the festival's competition. The Watching and Reading Committees comprised of administrative members of the festival and selected experts from the film making industry.
During the festival, Saad Khedr, a leading filmmaker, was honored for his great contributions to media, development and filmmaking. The event held as 5 days workshops given by various professionals from all over the globe. The participants found the workshops enormously beneficial to them as they were introduced to new ideas such as machination of plot-structure, symbolism, linear and divergent characters.
Overall, there were 59 films screened in 4 categories. They were Narrative Films Competition, Documentary Film, Student Film Competition, and Script competition. Within each category there were competitions. A diverse group of juries, representing the GCC nations, were invited and assigned to judge each and every competition. A total of 5 awards were given out in each of the competition. The award symbolizes the Golden Palm Tree, which is a popular film about a city in Saudi Arabia.
Interview with Abdulmajeed AlKanani
Mr. Abdulmajeed AlKanani is an Executive Director of SceenTV, on YouTube. Besides being an actor, screenwriter, and a creative online content creator, he has written and acted in several short films. Include Monopoly, Karwa, Dark, and Six Blind Eyes. Additionally, he has participated in several Saudi programs and serials, such as My Burger and Bread and Salt and is known for his participation in many stage plays at the Saudi Arabian Society for Culture and Arts in Dammam. Mr. AlKanani is currently presenting the popular comedian show, Logimat, on SceenTV.
A.W. As a judge this year, what are your reflections and thoughts on the Saudi Film Festival?
A.A. First of all, since I have attended and participated in the Saudi Film Festival since its inception. I am very happy to see the Festival has grown and evolved as the 4th event is coming to an end. This year, I am honored to be one of the judges. I have noticed that the festival has made a remarkable improvement in certain areas. In particular, the technicality, such as cinematography, sound recording, music recording, digital post, projection, and others have made immeasurable improvement. Additionally, the maturity of the festival has brought forth discussions from filmmakers on social ideas and phenomena, and their future dreams and goals. The Saudi film industry is growing and maturing because the people involved are amazing. They are actively exchanging and tinkering their ideas, and they are working tirelessly to transform the industry.
A.W. What is your opinion on the films and their quality this year?
A.A. As I said, the increasing quality of the films is apparent through the use of more technologies and techniques that improve the overall quality. While some film producers focused on the technical aspects of their films more, others targeted on the content and the idea they want to convey to the audience. For the most part, many of them have succeeded to achieve their goals. Despite the fact that some of the films this year were unfortunately below par with the competitors, the experience and exposure have allowed the filmmakers to gain tremendous personal growth in their role as filmmakers. Hence, we are hopeful and optimistic that their future projects will be greatly improved and much better.
A.W. How about the overall quality of this year's festival?
A.A. In general, this year has been a huge success, and the festival is better than ever.
A.W. What is the fate of this Film Festival? Will it succeed and endure in Saudi Arabia?
A.A. Of course, it has to, and I am optimistic. Its greater success depends greatly on our ability to open cinemas to the public. It will definitely get things moving at a much faster rate. For filmmakers and aficionados, the creation of a public cinema industry is a dream comes true and the ultimate goal. It would provide us with the means and the platform to share, exchange, and further tinker our ideas and get the Saudi film industry started.
A.W. What would you advice novice filmmakers in their attempt to make a mark in film industry?
A.A. Simply put, use your gifts and earned knowledge, believe in yourself, and start making your film.
Interview with Ali Al Kalthami
Ali Al Kalthami is a Saudi comedian, actor and director. Al Kalthami has over 447, 500 followers on Twitter. His channel Khambalah, has more than 350,000 subscriptions and his videos have viewed by about 22 million viewers.
A.W. What are your reflections on the Saudi Film Festival?
A. A. I did not come with any expectations. I came, not to judge, but to observe with an open mind and heart. Frankly speaking, I am surprised and impressed; the festival was well thought of and organized. The attendees came from all over to watch films, and I had the opportunity to meet talented filmmakers. Since my work is mostly online, I am quite isolated from the film industry. Thus, I am not in contact with many of the great filmmakers. The Saudi Film Festival gave me an opportunity to connect and re-connect with many in the film making industry.
A.W. What do you think of the quality of the films - the themes, plot development, and characters?
A.A. Some of them were very good. In particular, the filmmakers from Al-Hasa stood out in areas, such as story telling, directing techniques, cinematography, and acting. Even the experimental films were great. I saw a lot of potential professional filmmakers with admirable passion and vision.
A.W. Online content creators and producers are growing in trend. In the USA, Apple TV, Netflix, Amazon, and others are competing for viewers' following and subscription. What is the environment for online creators and producers in the Middle East? Is Telfaz11 facing similar competition? What do you anticipate for the future of Telfaz11?
A. A. Telfaz11 is doing great. It has been around for eight years, and we have built a network around it. Currently, I am working on two short films, a few commercials, and a big Internet-sketch show.
A.W. Currently, who is your audience, and what segment of the public do you wish to target?
A. A. I have always worked from within. I think there are many great stories in Saudi Arabia that have never been told. In storytelling, Saudi Arabia is an untapped territory. Historically, the oral storytelling existed among Saudi tribes, and I know a lot of stories that would be an epic narratives. Of course, there is a limitation on productions and actors, and sensitive topics that may affect filmmakers. The complications of these oral story and history are still relevant in our communities. Thus, we need to be sensitive to our audience and society. Saudi Arabia is relatively a new nation. We have to learn more from the past and present in order to navigate our films and be mindful of how we affect the Saudi society.
A.W. What is your advice to the young Saudi filmmakers?
A. A. They should work nonstop and tirelessly. The first 10 years in this career is the experimental phase. Mistakes are unavoidable, but these errors are learning experience that can translate into improved and better projects. Also, it is important to develop new ideas, philosophy, and perspectives during the experimental phase. It is difficult to make it in the media industry in Saudi Arabia, unless you know someone. I did not know anyone; only my hard work and determination helped me to succeed.
About the author: Alexander Woodman is an award-winning writer from Los Angeles Press Club. He specializes in social science research and visual culture in Middle East. Currently, he is a faculty member at Prince Mohammad Bin Fahd University in Saudi Arabia.