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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 September 2018

Diff 2017: Saudi filmmakers celebrate cinema announcement

Vox cinemas already planning expansion into Saudi market

Lollipop directed by Hanaa Alfassi. Courtesy Dubai Internaitonal Film Festival
Lollipop directed by Hanaa Alfassi. Courtesy Dubai Internaitonal Film Festival

Saudi filmmakers at this year’s Dubai International Film Festival (Diff) have spoken to The National about Monday’s announcement that the kingdom will reopen cinemas in early 2018.

Hajar Alnaim, whose film Detained is screening in the Gulf Shorts section told us: “My film was funded by Saudi individuals. They were really excited about the message of the film and wanted to be a part of that voice and a part of its success when it goes round festivals. Saudi audiences don’t only want to watch movies, they want to fund them and support them, and they deserve to see this film they've supported on home soil.”

Detained directed by Hajar Alnaim. Courtesy Dubai Internaitonal Film Festival
Detained directed by Hajar Alnaim. Courtesy Dubai Internaitonal Film Festival

Alnaim added that the return of cinemas to the kingdom should be a boost for Saudi filmmaking in general, and she hopes to play her part in the transformation: “Opening cinemas is going to encourage more producers to make more movies, and I hope I can use my experience to be a part of teaching people, and encouraging more female directors in particular.”

Maan B, producer of the thriller The Scapegoat was also pleased with the news, although he wasn’t entirely surprised by the announcement: “I think it’s a plan they’ve had for a long time,” he says. “My brother Tahla [B, Scapegoat director] and I had a scholarship from the Kingdom to go abroad and study filmmaking, with no cinemas in Saudi Arabia. That just didn’t make any sense if they didn’t already see this coming. It makes perfect sense now. I think the crown prince and King Salman are changing things for the better and we’re grateful for that.”

Hanaa Saleh Alfassi, Lollipop director, added that she is pleased to finally have a home audience: “The problem is if I want to make a local feature, your first audience needs to be Saudi if you’re talking about Saudi,” she says. “Some things get lost in translation, so that has to be the first audience to open up that opportunity to succeed at the local box office. After that maybe send it to Europe or wherever afterwards. If I’m going to make a film about Saudis, ultimately I want my audience to be Saudis.”

Lollipop directed by Hanaa Alfassi. Courtesy Dubai Internaitonal Film Festival
Lollipop directed by Hanaa Alfassi. Courtesy Dubai Internaitonal Film Festival

Alfassi adds that she has occasionally been able to screen her films in her home country, and she’s been impressed by the reactions of Saudi audiences: “I did have a screening of a previous film in an arts and culture theatre in Saudi, and I was amazed by the reaction because all those things that international audiences might not pick up on, they got it. The Q+A was incredible.”

One potential hurdle that has been raised by regional industry insiders is censorship, but Alfassi, whose own film comes with a warning for “adult references and coarse language” doesn’t foresee a long-term problem: “At first they probably will start with animation and very safe films, but cinema is a very different experience to TV,” she asserts. “TV just throws content at us, but with cinema, I watch the trailer, I see the reviews. Cinema audiences do know what they’re going to see, they’re not stupid. They intentionally buy the ticket and they know what they’re going to watch. I think once people realise that we’ll be fine.”

Filmmakers and audiences shouldn’t have to wait too long for their first Saudi cinema experience. The region’s biggest cinema chain, Dubai-based Vox Cinemas, is already ramping up its plans for cinemas in the kingdom, as Ahmed Ismail, chief executive of parent company Al Futtaim Ventures explains - although he denies rumours that major cinema chains already have cinemas built in the kingdom in anticipation of this announcement: “We’re very excited to have the opportunity to apply for one of the licenses," he says. "We've been keeping a close eye on the situation. We don't have any physical planning in place in Saudi, but we understand the Saudi customers very well as they flock in hundreds of thousands to our cinemas in the UAE and Bahrain, so we understand their needs very well. Initial indications are that this could be a huge opportunity. We already operate 600 screens in the region, but in Saudi alone, we could be talking about 2,000 screens.”

Al Ahmed also echoed the thoughts of our survey of Diff filmmakers’ on the opening of cinemas as a catalyst for production in the region: “It's also going to open up opportunities for the wider creative industries," he asserts. "Because once you have cinemas you also have a much bigger market for the creation and display of local content. This could really change things.”

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Read more from Diff 2017:

Matt Damon on ‘Downsizing’

Haifaa Al Mansour won’t get the hump after winning funding for camel movie

Local industry reacts to Saudi cinema opening announcement

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