Can the Saudi film industry take off?

at Takki, a Saudi web series turned into Netflix, Saudi Arabia is not the land of hard-line Islamists and wealthy sheikhs with gilded palaces. Instead, it is a street full of potholes and paint peeling off the walls, where young Saudis ride on motorbikes grappling with boredom and the need to look beyond their limits for a little entertainment. “Ten days on vacation and we still don’t have any fun,” Malik, the protagonist, tells his friends in one scene. Someone answers: “Let’s go to Dubai.”

ten years ago, Takki It was a cult show on YouTube. Now it’s a hit on Netflix, which aired a new third season last year in an effort to cash in on a large, largely ignored audience in Saudi Arabia. In 2020, TV11, the Saudi production company for the series, signed an eight-film deal with the streaming service. The show makers, who once had to dodge Al MutawaThe country’s religious police, for their portrayal, have become a success story for Saudi Arabia’s aspiring filmmakers and poster children for the country’s upstart entertainment industry – an industry the monarchy itself is working to expand, even as its cultural and religious values ​​may hamper its success.

Al-Mutawa imposed a strict moral code on Saudi youth and women, often harassing them on a whim. While shooting her 2012 movie Oujda On the streets of Riyadh, Haifaa Al-Mansour, the first Saudi woman to direct a feature film, said she had to hide in pickup trucks and give directions to actors over the phone.

at Takki, a Saudi web series turned into Netflix, Saudi Arabia is not the land of hard-line Islamists and wealthy sheikhs with gilded palaces. Instead, it is a street full of potholes and paint peeling off the walls, where young Saudis ride on motorbikes grappling with boredom and the need to look beyond their limits for a little entertainment. “Ten days on vacation and we still don’t have any fun,” Malik, the protagonist, tells his friends in one scene. Someone answers: “Let’s go to Dubai.”

ten years ago, Takki It was a cult show on YouTube. Now it’s a hit on Netflix, which aired a new third season last year in an effort to cash in on a large, largely ignored audience in Saudi Arabia. In 2020, TV11, the Saudi production company for the series, signed an eight-film deal with the streaming service. The show makers, who once had to dodge Al MutawaThe country’s religious police, for their portrayal, have become a success story for Saudi Arabia’s aspiring filmmakers and poster children for the country’s upstart entertainment industry – an industry the monarchy itself is working to expand, even as its cultural and religious values ​​may hamper its success.

Al-Mutawa imposed a strict moral code on Saudi youth and women, often harassing them on a whim. While shooting her 2012 movie Oujda On the streets of Riyadh, Haifaa Al-Mansour, the first Saudi woman to direct a feature film, said she had to hide in pickup trucks and give directions to actors over the phone.

Now, the country’s clergy remain silent when Hollywood actresses with drooping necklines appear at film festivals. Mazen Hayek, a media communications consultant and former spokesperson for MBC, the largest television network in the Arab world, described the changes in the media industry as a “cultural revolution”.

“It’s a very important era in Saudi filmmaking, and I think it’s an even more important time for us as creative women,” said Sarah Taiba, a Saudi-born filmmaker who studied fine arts in San Francisco. Foreign Policy. “Our voices have been ignored for so long, and that ends now.”

Saudi Arabia’s policy on entertainment and leisure changed in 2017 when Mohammed bin Salman was appointed crown prince and began promoting Vision 2030, the economic plan he had put in place the previous year to reduce the kingdom’s economic dependence on fossil fuels by becoming a tourism and entertainment hub. including the film industry.

Although his government is known in the West for crushing dissent, ordering mass executions, and being linked to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, MBS is gaining positive publicity domestically for the expansion of the Saudi film industry. Increasingly, young Saudis and industry experts in the Arab world tell me they admire how quickly the film industry has taken off.

This interest in the film industry may be a way to whitewash the reputation of the monarchy, especially since it is still afraid of the youth-led Arab Spring. In short, Mohammed bin Salman offers entertainment and a few social freedoms instead of political rights.

It seems to be working: For many young Saudis, the crown prince is the man of the age — a member of the royal family who curbed the power of the clergy and gave young Saudis something they told me over the years that they are more desperate than politics. repairs.

Already, the entertainment sector in Saudi Arabia has grown exponentially. Four years ago, Mohammed bin Salman reopened cinemas in the country, which have made huge profits, after a hiatus of more than 35 years imposed by the government under pressure from religious conservatives. There’s clearly a strong domestic appetite for them: Hundreds of movie theaters have sprung up in cities across the country, and movie theater revenues soared to $238 million in 2021.

The Saudi government has said it envisions 2,600 cinemas by 2030, and is funding local and regional filmmakers to produce films on topics that Arabs can identify with. (Riyadh said it is investing a total of $64 billion in the entertainment sector.) Saudi actors and directors who fled the country are returning home to make films in and around Saudi Arabia. Ahed Kamel, for example, is preparing to shoot a movie about her family’s driver, and Mona Khashoggi is back to make films in her home country after two decades in London.

Riyadh has also set a goal of shooting 100 films in Saudi Arabia by 2030, aiming to make the country the most popular destination for film shooting in the region, replacing Morocco. Saudi ministers meet with film executives in Bollywood and elsewhere, offering producers significant concessions and discounts if they shoot in Saudi Arabia and hire local talent.

In recent months, pro-government newspapers have bragged about it Kandahara spy thriller film starring Gerard Butler, and a historical epic desert Warrior Both were filmed in AlUla, an area with a UNESCO World Heritage Site amid miles of ocher desert.

Meanwhile, nearby Egyptian, Syrian and Lebanese artists hope to capitalize on Riyadh’s plans and secure Saudi funding they cannot get back home. Saudi Arabia last year launched the Red Sea Fund to fund filmmakers, and has received hundreds of applicants from across the region. Of the nearly 100 projects funded, 60 were from the Arab region and 15 were women.

However, even as Riyadh finances production and markets stars from all over the world, its nascent film industry faces significant challenges.

As the industry is still young, one of the key questions is whether local talent is up to the job. Meanwhile, the government wants to open film-making institutes for young people – for example, the Saudi Film Council has partnered with French film school La Fémis and the University of Southern California. But growing the talent ready to lead global production takes time.

Perhaps most importantly, politics and religion – as well as age-old social taboos – may pose impediments to international filmmakers who take Saudi Arabia seriously as an ally in filmmaking and as a cultural force in the Arab world.

Last month, Saudi Arabia blocked the release of Marvel’s Doctor Strange in a multiverse of madness During a 12-second scene in which a lesbian character remembers her mother. Saudi Arabia asked Disney to cut “LGBTQ signals,” but Disney refused. Nawaf Al-Sabhan, the general supervisor of cinema ratings in Saudi Arabia, said that the film has not been officially banned yet, but “being in the Middle East, it is very difficult to pass something like this.”

British actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who starred in the title role, said it was an “expected disappointment”, but “really far away” from “where we live globally as a culture”.

Last year a similar scenario was implemented eternity, another Marvel movie that depicts a gay couple; The examination did not end up in the country.

Hayek, a media communications consultant, believes it is unfair to compare the Saudi film industry to Hollywood or Bollywood.

“You cannot suddenly expect Western values ​​to be applied to a society that has had to go through nearly 40 years of ultra-conservatism,” he said. “The growth in the Saudi content industry will have a positive multiplier effect across the MENA region.”

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