“You wouldn’t know it existed unless you were told about it directly. You didn’t read about it anywhere. There was nothing. It was a very closed door experience. There is little that binds people together more than a shared secret. Saudi-born American producer Todd Nims underscores this as he reflects on his earliest memory of the Saudi Film Festival, the first and oft-described “most local” event of its kind.
Launched in 2008 at the Saudi Arts and Cultural Society (SASCA) – a small cultural center in the city of Dammam – it initially consisted of just 80 filmmakers from across the country, many of whom met for the first time afterwards. hear about the meeting purely through word of mouth. The establishment of the Dubai International Film Festival in 2007, followed by the Gulf Film Festival in 2008, also held in Dubai, somewhat kick-started the creation of Saudi’s own offerings.
“I met all the Saudi filmmakers at the inaugural Gulf Film Festival because I showed a film about Saudi there (the 2007 documentary Home: The Story of the Aramco Brats)”, says Nims. “When I came back (in Saudi Arabia), I went to the film festival they had told me about. But it was a very small thing. Because everything was just very different back then – it was a totally different scene than it is today.
Of course, there was one very big difference between what was happening in the UAE and Saudi Arabia at the time: in the latter country, cinemas and public gatherings were still considered “haram” (forbidden) by the Mutaween, the powerful religious police force of Saudi Arabia. the country. .
“We can call that ‘the dark age’ for cinema and art in Saudi Arabia,” says Ahmed Almulla, the founder of the festival. “We never dreamed that our festival would last for a long time.”
So how did a celebration of film come about in a country that had banned communal celebrations as well as film screenings?
“The festival started with the name ‘Saudi Film Competition’,” recalls the now artistic director Ahmed Alshayeb, who joined the organization in 2015 after seeing the early days from the outside. In addition to clever nomenclature, Almulla had managed to get some vital paperwork from the head of SASCA, clearing him to put his dream into action.
“My first memory of that 2008 festival is getting together with some young Saudi filmmakers and talking about finding the courage to show the first film in public,” Almulla recalled. “And that meeting was when we made that decision to do it.”
And yet, after such an exciting and completely unpublished start, it took a few steps back. According to Alshayeb, a Jeddah film festival was due to start in 2009, but too much media frenzy and talk of “flying actresses” so upset the country’s conservatives that they complained to the government. This prompted the Home Secretary to draft a new order to prevent events related to cinema or public screenings. “So then the Saudi Film Festival pulled out and it didn’t happen next year,” says Nims. “Not because it was closed. But because Almulla was very careful how he walked.
Six years later, in 2015, the festival returned, even though film remained illegal in the kingdom until late 2017, when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) enacted his string of reforms.
“All the filmmakers we met wanted the festival to come back,” Alshayeb says of what happened during the hiatus, a time when he was working with Almulla in a branch of the country’s numerous SASCAs. ‘But they also said it couldn’t be done, that it would be crazy. So we did it smart: we didn’t face or challenge the community, we tried to be balanced. We didn’t even use the word “cinema” anywhere. From then on, no one was ever sure that the festival would take place every year. And when that happened, it was a huge shock.”
The momentum picked up. Out of 104 Saudi film entries in 2015, the ninth edition, which took place from May 4 to 11, accepted 230; and of the 80 early attendees, there are now over 16,000 with 500 guests, as many as the festival can afford. The festival also donated five books each to attendees on the art of filmmaking in the country. “Now, since the first day of the festival in 2008, we have produced more than 55 (book) titles, including 17 new ones this year that are also available in bookstores,” says Almullah. “There is no institution here that publishes books about cinema. We also give 500 copies of each to Saudi libraries and run a range of programs for school children. … All young people are the VIPs at this festival.”
SFF’s growth in stature and official acceptance was physically represented in 2019, when it changed venues to the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, known simply as Ithra, a striking structure resembling rocks rising from the sand near the Dhahran oil hub. It was also the first year that non-religious tourists were allowed to attend (as THR did, becoming the first western media to do so).
When COVID hit in 2020, the festival went online and has stayed that way, with daily video clips and live streaming opening it up to the outside world beyond its roughly 16,000 physical attendees.
And while the organization is allowed to have foreign judges and assist (for free) with the increasing number of film crews flying in to film at the world’s newest location, the focus remains, as always, on supporting and advancing local Saudi filmmaking – so much so that Alshayeb politely refuses to publicly recommend a single SFF-linked film because “all the filmmakers are family”.
“The core of our part is that we see movies as a means of communication,” he says. “We don’t have a long history in Saudi Arabia with film, as you have in the US, UK or Western culture. But Saudi Arabia is a big country and we want to get to know our own cultures better. We can do that through film and by developing the quality of our films.”