By Habib Shaikh
MANY Saudi filmmakers believe that film and TV are strong media that Saudis need to get into and control. "Hollywood has been successful in influencing how people view the world and other cultures through their films, Saudis could also utilise the medium to correct negative image the world has of Muslims in general and Saudis in particular," said Fahmi Farahat, a Saudi filmmaker based in California.
Farahat proposes to start an amateur Saudi Film Festival for the young on short films and documentaries. "In that way we give them the support to explore their creativity in a low budget at the same time showcase their talent," he added.
Walid Jawad, another Saudi filmmaker based in Washington, is also on a mission to improve the image of Saudi Arabia to the world and in the West in particular through his short documentaries.
He said: "Documentaries are exceptionally effective if they are well done and if they create a buzz, he said. Although Saudi Arabia is the main source of funding for the electronic media in the Arab world including Egyptian films and TV shows, Saudi filmmakers are facing hardship in funding their small-scale projects."
According to Jawad, the major reason behind the lack of funding and interest among Saudis is that Saudis do not realise that they have a responsibility. "Once that concept becomes a principle for Saudis to live by, then filmmakers can start putting a strategy to get funding for their projects that serve the image of Saudi Arabia," he said. Farahat said that the lack of trust among Saudi sponsors in Saudi film producers and directors is another obstacle to funding. "Investors need to have confidence in our youth and take the risks," he added.
Due to logistical difficulties in filming in Saudi Arabia many Saudi filmmakers resort to filming abroad. The government regulations on filming inside the country are still unclear. An official at the Ministry of Information reportedly said that Saudi filmmakers do not need government approval before filming and that most of the small films or documentaries made by Saudis and filmed in the country did not apply for approval. "As long as they do not film or take pictures of government buildings, or military bases for security reasons and they respect women’s privacy, they shouldn’t face any problems," he added.
"Foreign filmmakers, however, are requested to apply for approval through the ministry before planning their trip to Saudi Arabia. But if a filmmaker applies for permission we grant him/her the permission," he explained. Abdullah Eyaf, a young Saudi director and producer, did apply for an official approval for filming his documentary in Riyadh and Al Khobar from the ministry. "I was amazed by the simple procedure and how fast I got the approval. It took only three days," said Eyaf.
"I wanted to make sure that I wouldn’t face any problems and wanted everything to be official and legal from the start," he added. He advises all filmmakers to get the official approval before filming. His first film Cinema 500km, a 45 minutes and 10 seconds long documentary, is an indirect protest against the ban on cinemas in Saudi Arabia. While Eyaf found it easy to film in the Kingdom, other Saudi filmmakers have resorted to filming outside the country. "I film in the US because I can. I have the support, the resources, the creativity, and freedom to do so," explained Farahat, who has filmed four short movies.
"I would love to make films in Saudi Arabia, shoot a Saudi film with Saudi actors and actresses and tell a Saudi story. Our culture is rich with history, social issues, and stories that have never been shown on the screen before. But I don’t think I will have the chance to film here. Sadly to say I am better off in the US," he added.
In feature films the lack of Saudi actresses is a hurdle, while in documentary films it is the lack of Saudi women who are willing to be filmed on camera or interviewed. It is very hard to find Saudi women who are willing to be filmed, followed and interviewed on camera. One lady even changed the way she wore the hijab while being filmed so that the audience wouldn’t recognise her. However, with the emergence of Saudi films, and Saudi filmmakers and the participation of Saudi films in international and regional film festivals, many are predicting the silent emergence of a Saudi film industry along side the Gulf film industry and Egyptian film industry.
"Currently there is no Saudi film industry but there are efforts and experimentations in this regard. But, the sums of those projects do not allow us to call it an industry," said Jawad. "So far, Saudi Arabia does not have a comparative advantage in the field. From a business stand point, it will cost more to produce Saudi films and will be much more challenging to go through pre-production, production and post-production," he added.