As other Arab states falter, Saudi Arabia seeks to become a cultural hub

Director Dina Amer receiving the Audience Award for her film You Resemble Me at the Red Sea Film Festival in Jeddah on Dec 13, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA (NYTIMES) - A pregnant Saudi woman, far from home, finds herself stalked by inner and outer demons.

A wannabe Saudi vlogger and his friends, menaced by the Internet's insatiable appetite for content and more mysterious dangers, try to escape a dark forest. At a wedding, the mother of the bride panics when her daughter disappears with all of their guests waiting downstairs.

These were just a few of the 27 Saudi-made films premiering this month at a film festival in Jeddah, part of the conservative kingdom's huge effort to transform itself from a cultural backwater into a cinematic powerhouse in the Middle East.

The Saudi push reflects profound shifts in the creative industries across the Arab world.

Over the past century, while the name Saudi Arabia conjured little more than oil, desert and Islam, Cairo, Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad stood out as the Arab cultural beacons where blockbuster movies were made, chart-topping songs were recorded and books that got intellectuals talking hit the shelves.

But over the past decade, those legacies have been battered by conflicts, financial meltdowns and state failures. Years of war have damaged Syria's television studios and Baghdad's publishers. An economic collapse has left Lebanon's art-house cinemas struggling to keep the lights on.

Egypt's vaunted film industry, which made the country's dialect the most widely understood Arabic, has been in artistic decline for years, and its TV shows have been hijacked by the country's intelligence services to promote pro-government themes.

In many ways, the region's cultural mantle is up for grabs, and Saudi Arabia is spending lavishly to seize it.

At the Red Sea International Film Festival, held on a former execution ground, Jeddah residents rubbernecked as stars like Hilary Swank and Naomi Campbell strutted down a red carpet in revealing gowns, and Saudi influencers DJed at dance parties.

All this in a country where, until a few years ago, women were not allowed to drive, cinemas were banned, and aspiring filmmakers often had to dodge the religious police to shoot in public.

To build the new industry, the Saudis are tapping their country's oil wealth to fund home-grown productions, sponsor Saudi filmmakers to study abroad, and establish domestic training schools, sound stages and studios. The government is financing similar initiatives to foster Saudi visual artists, musicians and chefs.

The government has enticed three big-budget Hollywood productions to film in the country with financing and government-supplied helicopters and fighter jets, hoping to overtake Jordan and Morocco as the go-to destination for spectacular desert landscapes.

During a panel discussion at the festival, Mr Bahaa Abdulmajeed, an official from the Saudi Investment Ministry, said the kingdom had one goal: Make Saudi Arabia a new hub for film-making in the region.

After Mr Abdulmajeed enumerated the many carrots the kingdom was dangling to attract the film industry, the panel's moderator, Variety reporter Nick Vivarelli, laughed. "OK," he said. "So the red tape will be non-existent, and you're rolling out the red carpet, in a nutshell."

Actress Hilary Swank on the red carpet at the Red Sea Film Festival in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on Dec 6, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

Despite its deep pockets, Saudi Arabia faces big challenges.

It is decades behind in building a class of skilled creators and technicians. And many Arab professionals are reluctant to move to a socially conservative monarchy where alcohol is banned and the government jails dissenters for mild criticisms.

Some industry veterans questioned how long the Saudi movie mania would last, pointing to previous attempts by the United Arab Emirates and Qatar to create film industries by sheer force of wallet, initiatives that came up short. Others asked when the industry would become profitable, not just fuelled by government oil wealth.

"As long as the idea is 'We will push cultural entrepreneurship provided the barrel is above US$70 (S$95),' then this is bound for failure," said Mr Mazen Hayek, a media communications adviser and a former spokesman for MBC, the Arab world's largest television network, based in Dubai, UAE.

To cultivate creative culture, he said, Arab countries must ensure personal freedoms, rule of law, free-market practices and tolerance, including for LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) rights.

In its favour, Saudi Arabia has a population of 22 million, meaning it can support a home-grown industry better than its tiny gulf neighbours, said Mr Faisal Baltyuor, head of CineWaves, a Riyadh-based film distributor.

Saudi Arabia allowed cinemas to reopen in 2018 after a 35-year ban. PHOTO: AFP

Although Saudi Arabia's population is about one-fifth of Egypt's, the Saudis are more affluent and wired, making them more likely to pay for streaming services and movie tickets. At about US$18, a ticket in Saudi theatres is among the most expensive in the world.

But the kingdom only allowed cinemas to reopen in 2018 after a 35-year ban. Before that, Saudis escaped to nearby Bahrain or Dubai to go to theatres. Now, the country has 430 screens and counting, making it the fastest-growing market in the world, with a target of 2,600 screens by 2030, Mr Abdulmajeed said.

Rather than drown out its neighbours, Saudi Arabia's opening may bolster the rest of the region's film-makers too.

The popularity of Egyptian content in Saudi Arabia makes it a tempting market for Egyptian studios, said Mr Mohamed Hefzy, head of Film Clinic, a Cairo-based production company.

Several Saudi-Egyptian collaborations are in the works, and an Egyptian "Hangover"-style comedy, Wa'afet Reggala (A Stand Worthy of Men), was the highest-grossing release in Saudi Arabia this year, beating the Hollywood blockbusters.

Saudi shows and movies are emerging as the region's watching habits are transforming, creating opportunities. Many young Arabs have abandoned the Ramadan television series that dominated their parents' screens for international series streamed on Netflix and Shahid, its Dubai-based Arabic counterpart.

That has created a big market for Arabic-language content.

Netflix has produced Jordanian, Egyptian and Syrian-Lebanese shows, with varying degrees of success, and just announced the release of its first Arabic-language feature film, Perfect Strangers.

When Wadjda (2012), the first Saudi feature directed by a woman, was filmed, Ms Haifaa al-Mansour, the director, was barred from mixing in public with male crew members. She worked instead from the back of a van, communicating with the actors via walkie-talkie.

Saudi director Haifaa al-Mansour was barred from mixing in public with male crew members during the filming for 2012 film Wadjda. PHOTO: TOBIAS KOWNATZKI, RAZORFILM

"I'm still in shock," said Ms Ahd Kamel, who played a conservative teacher in Wadjda, which portrays a rebellious young Saudi girl who desperately wants a bicycle, as she walked through the festival. "It's surreal."

Mr Hisham Fageeh, a Saudi comedian and actor, said officials had told him future films should avoid touching directly on God or politics.

Ms Sumaya Rida, an actress in the festival movies Junoon and Rupture, said the films aimed to portray Saudi couples realistically while avoiding on-screen physical affection.

But film-makers said they were just happy to have support, accepting that it would come at the price of creative constraints.

"I don't intend to provoke. The purpose of cinema is to tease. Cinema doesn't have to be didactic," said Ms Fatima al-Banawi, a Saudi actress and director whose first feature film the festival is funding. "It comes naturally. We've been so good at working around things for so long."

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