The kingdom’s new breed: Saudi film makers

There are no proper cinemas or film schools in Saudi Arabia. Yet, the Kingdom’s underground film scene is a bustling one filled with self-taught young filmmakers whose films are increasingly being shown at festivals around the region. MENASSAT met with some of the up and coming talents in Riyadh.
Haifaa Mansour has been on the frontline of tackling taboo issues in Saudi Arabia. © Al Jazeera

RIYADH, April 22, 2009 (MENASSAT) – In his shoulder-length curly hair and loose t-shirt, filmmaker Abdulamusin Al-Mutairi looks slightly out of context among the abaya and thobe-clad street goers in the kingdom’s ultra-conservative capital Riyadh.

Al-Mutairi is among a growing breed of young Saudi filmmakers who are pushing the cultural mores of their country – and all without official government funding.

His latest project “The Dream” is a short low-budget film shot in Riyadh that recounts the experiences of a Christian woman living in Saudi Arabia.

The film, which recently premiered at the Gulf Film Festival in Dubai, is the first Saudi movie venture to talk about “the issue of the Christian religion in Saudi Arabia,” as Al-Mutairi puts it.

Al-Mutairi says he was advised by some friends to not show the film in the kingdom due to the “sensitive” topic of the film - Christians living in Saudi Arabia.

“I was told not to screen this film in Saudi. But I think it’s important to show different stories. Our films always talk about Muslim society. So I put the spotlight on Christian (expatriate) women in Saudi, “ he told MENASSAT.

The Dream marks Al-Mutairi’s third short film. He has previously written and produced “The Project,” the story of a young man from Riyadh seeking to fulfill his dream in life, and the film "Nothing" which competed in last year’s Gulf Film Festival.


Like most of his fellow young Saudi filmmakers, Al-Mutairi taught himself how to make movies with an amateur video camera. In a country like Saudi Arabia that offers no education in directing or film production, the most important tool is the belief in oneself, Al-ؤutairi explains.

“There is no 35 mm film in Saudi Arabia. There are no cinemas. No film schools. We’re all basically self-taught. Our plan is to prove to young Saudis that they can do this too. If you believe in it, you can do it.”

So how does one become interested in filmmaking with no resources in the industry around and with cinemas banned in the country?

Al-Mutairi points to the Internet.

“There are many websites in Arabic that talk about films. We started meeting, watching international films at home,” he said. The films are usually downloaded from the web.

The boom

Among the brightest hopes in the Saudi Arabian filmmaking community is Haifaa Al Mansour, who emerged a few years ago. According to Al-Mutairi, she has been a driving hope for aspiring filmmakers like himself. 

Born in 1974, Al Mansour started out by producing a number of short films, before gaining international acclaim for her documentary “Women Without Shadows” - based on the lives of women in the kingdom.

Al Mansour's films have both been praised and criticized for bringing up the taboo in her films.

It was because of her breakthrough efforts that filmmaking seemed like a possibility with young filmmakers here, Al-Mutairi told MENASSAT.

Today, he says, there are “countless filmmakers” in the kingdom.

Still, while there are numerous talented directors and producers in Saudi Arabia, one of the more fundamental problems for filmmakers here is the lack of film venues for screening their work – especially in Riyadh.

While it is true there is an annual “official” film festival in the kingdom’s more liberal Red Sea coast town of Jeddah, initiatives to organize film screenings at cultural centers in Riyadh have consistently been denied, Al-Mutairi said.

The problem he says, is the religious police or Muttawa.

“The Muttawa have consistently stopped these efforts in Riyadh. They’re scared of change. There are a lot of things that need to be changed here though.”

Argentinean Tango and Saudi folk

Hana Al-Abdallah is another member of Saudi’s new generation of filmmakers. Her latest film “Beyond Words” aims to bring about intercultural exchange between Saudi Arabia and Latin America through musical dialogue.

“The film documents a meeting between an Argentinean tango band and a Saudi folk music band. It’s about how people can learn more about each other’s cultures through music,” Al-Abdallah told MENASSAT.

Like Almutairi’s film, Beyond Words was also scheduled to compete at the recent Gulf Film Festival in Dubai.

And Al-Abdallah echoes Al-Mutairi's thoughts that filmmaking is booming in her country.

The difference between the beginning of the filmmaking craze and its current stage now, she says, is the quality of the projects coming out.

“It started out with quantity. Now it’s changed to quality. The films are better produced and more artistic.”

The fact that the majority of people working in film in Saudi Arabia are self-taught sometimes has a negative impact on production, Al-Abdallah said.

“Sometimes the crew is not trained which affects the quality of the movie. Many government grants are available to young Saudis but scholarships are not given yet for film studies. There are always workshops outside the country though.”

Film reviews but no movie theatres

A member of the Female Consultative Committee in the Ministry of Culture and Information in Saudi Arabia, Al-Abdallah writes film critiques for a local newspaper when she’s not out shooting her own movies.

Film reviews in the national newspapers when cinemas are officially banned in the country: another of the kingdom’s many paradoxes.

That’s when a trip to neighboring and more liberal Bahrain comes in handy.

“Many Saudis go to Bahrain to watch movies. During the holiday season, I’d say seventy percent of people watching movies in cinemas in Bahrain are Saudi,” said Al-Abdallah.

And when will Saudi be ready to host its own movie theaters?

Al-Mutairi utters a brief sigh and then offers his take on the situation.

“The government is waiting for society to be ready for the cinema. They gave us the opportunity to open the film festival (in Jeddah). But I believe change is hard for our society, especially in Riyadh. It’s like with anything new here. People think it will be corrupt people. And the government doesn’t want confrontation with the conservatives. So they’re pushing slowly,” said Al-Mutairi.

Tip-toeing towards reform, in other words.