Saudi Arabia’s Big Screen Coming into Focus

On March 1, 2018 Saudi Arabia started issuing licenses for cinema-operators in the Kingdom, following a 35-year ban on cinemas which was lifted in late 2017. Shortly after, the Saudi Art Council and the American Film Showcase brought together local and international experts to share ideas about the future of the Kingdom’s film industry.

Three experts openly weighed in on topics ranging from content choice, the filmmaking process, authenticity and representation of local voices, to the necessity of legal infrastructure in the industry. Naturally with a budding industry in the country, much focus was given to the promise of young content creators in Saudi Arabia.

Panelist Jasim Al-Saady emphasized the importance of being open to failures and self-expression. “Youngsters … need to learn from their mistakes,” he said, drawing from his wealth of knowledge and over 12 years of experience in commercials, corporate videos, documentaries, and feature films. Known most recently for “A Hologram for the King,” he has worked on films for the Oprah Winfrey Network in Saudi Arabia, shot IMAX documentaries on pilgrims in the holy city of Mecca, and worked with American documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock’s “Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?”

Saudi actor and comedian, Hisham Fageeh, who was the first Saudi to perform in Gotham Theater and headline an Arabic standup comedy tour in US and England, also encouraged home-grown filmmakers to pursue their work.

Some such local content-makers, students at Saudi Arabia’s first cinema school, are also anticipating a major shift in their chosen field following the lifting of restrictions by reform-minded Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the last year.

“Everything is about to change,” said Sama Kinsara a first-year student of “visual and digital production” at Effat University in Jeddah. Some changes are small yet significant, such as the name of her courses, which are abandoning deceptive titles in favor of clear taboo-free labels like “cinematic arts.”

Other changes are even more indicative of progress in the Kingdom and for women in particular. Kinsara and her female classmates are now open to carry a camera and film outside the university grounds, in places such as malls, where permissions and access are ever increasing for women across the country. Cinema is just one of several new avenues open to Saudi women, who can now attend soccer matches, take part in sport, and drive cars.

By 2030, Saudi Arabia expects to open 300 cinemas with 2,000 screens, building an industry it hopes will contribute more than $24 billion to the economy and create 30,000 permanent jobs.