DUBAI: When Saudi Arabia lifted its 35-year ban on cinemas almost three years ago, a love affair with cinema did not arise that day – it was validated. Before Saudi Arabia became the only cinema market to grow during the COVID-19 era, before its filming locations became the topic of conversation in the film world, the Kingdom had long been home to some of the moviegoers. the most passionate people in the world, who watched movies on MBC 2 day and night, who traded new VHS tapes, and who, if they wanted to pursue that passion, had only one choice: to make a name for themselves in Hollywood .
Mohammed Al-Turki, the famous Saudi producer behind films such as âArbitrageâ (2012) with Richard Gere; â99 Homesâ (2014) with Michael Shannon; and the next “Crisis”, starring Gary Oldman, followed exactly that route.
âEven though it was out of the ordinary to do this as a Saudi when cinemas were banned, my family has always been very supportive of my dream. When I got the opportunity to work on my first movie with Zeina Durra in 2010, they pushed me to do it, thinking it would fill that hobby, so I would fail and go back to Saudi Arabia and work from there. nine to five jobs, âAl-Turki told Arab News. âTheir plan didn’t work.
As Al-Turki was the audience’s special guest on that historic night in Riyadh when cinemas reopened, he couldn’t help but think about the boy he had been, who fell in love with the cinema for the first time in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia. , who rented his VHS and LaserDiscs in his school parking lot, who dreamed of making his own one day, something he never thought he could do in his home country. Now, finally, that landmark on the horizon.
Al-Turki is currently working on a film about a young Saudi woman and, according to the filmmaker, it is falling into place quickly.
âWe’re working on it now. I’m excited about it. I know it’s gonna be tough. We still have to find the perfect hero. Nonetheless, I think we can get by. Like everything in Arabia, there is excitement around it, and the people I work with want it ASAP. Hopefully we will be able to deliver on time they want, âAl-Turki said.
The producer looks a little stressed, and that’s understandable. The current pace in the Saudi cinema world, according to Al-Turki, is frantic.
âEveryone sees Saudi Arabia right now – in terms of cinema – as the land of opportunity. The competition is high. It’s great, but the challenge just got a lot harder. Because it’s a new market, it’s like the Old West, and it can be difficult to know who is there for the long term, or who is there for the short term, âhe says.
While some short-term players have emerged on a small scale, the biggest productions and longer-term investments have come from the big hitters in both parts of the world. Saudi entertainment giant MBC has invested heavily in producing more local content in the Kingdom, often competing for the same talents as global players such as Netflix, which has signed long-term deals with Saudi production companies such as than Telfaz11.
âAs an entertainment industry, we will see a lot of different material coming out of Saudi Arabia, so this is an exciting time. But then, it’s a big challenge for players like me who have been doing this for over a decade. Before, I had a lot of time to watch a project and relax, but now you really have to focus and see what comes next and jump on it. You have no time to waste, âsays Al-Turki.
He chose to focus on the story of a young woman because, in addition to being a social issue close to his heart, it is also the issue most closely linked to the nascent history of Saudi cinema. It was Haifaa Al-Mansour who put modern Saudi cinema on the map with “Wadjda” in 2012, the story of a young girl and her bicycle. And when Saudi Arabia stepped up its efforts to move the Kingdom forward, it was cinema and women’s rights that came together to the fore.
âI would like to show the human side of Saudi Arabia, bringing human stories, simple stories, about the challenges people face in Saudi Arabia and the region. âWadjdaâ was a prime example, addressing a story of women before the positive and apparent change in Arabia with Vision 2030, âsays Al-Turki.
Additionally, Al-Turki would like his Saudi films to follow the lessons of African-American culture in the United States, which has produced films in Hollywood that center on blue collar workers and the working class and their daily struggles.
âThere are great movies like ‘Soul Food’ or ‘Barbershop’ that focus on the everyday aspects of life in the African American community. Saudi Arabia and the Middle East have a lot of elements like that that can be portrayed in a movie. There are many ways to show the universal elements of a particular culture that people can all relate to, in Utah, London or elsewhere. That’s the power of cinema, âsays Al-Turki.
It’s not just international moviegoers who Al-Turki says will be interested in different kinds of Saudi stories – it’s the Saudis themselves who he says are hungry for different kinds of movies. One of the biggest misconceptions found by Al-Turki concerns the types of films that can work well in the Kingdom. In his eyes, the Saudi people have very diverse tastes, loving not only the biggest movie stars and action blockbusters, but also an appetite for smaller, more art-oriented content that has a message. strong social.
âIn terms of audience here in Saudi Arabia, I think the experience is the best in the region. In fact, people go to the cinema to watch movies. It’s a new experience for many, of course, so they’re really there to watch, âsays Al-Turki.
This gives the producer hope that when his latest film “Crisis”, already an independent hit outside the region and focusing on the horrors of the opioid epidemic in the United States, will find an audience when it opens. in Saudi Arabia on April 1. the first film he made and that he was able to release in his country of origin.
It is a step that he does not take lightly. He is currently in the final stages of planning a red carpet event with a question-and-answer session involving both him and the cast members in Riyadh.
His hope is that one of the young Saudi participants will be inspired to follow a similar path to his, although they may not have to travel halfway around the world to eventually make it home.
âI think in a few years we will see a lot of great talent coming from Saudi Arabia,â says Al-Turki.