No one would mistake the scene for Cannes. The towers from oil refineries dotted the horizon instead of the masts of mega-yachts.
But for Saudi Arabia’s tightknit community of filmmakers, the event in February had more meaning than hobnobbing on the Riviera. The film festival in the eastern city of Dammam was just the second government-approved showing of short movies and documentaries in recent years.
“Filmmaking is all about trying something new, experimenting and not giving up,” said Mohammed Baqer, one of the organizers of the Saudi Film Festival — the first major showcase and competition since a small workshop-style event last year. “So we don’t give up on the idea of change. Look at the winners of the festival.”
Two women, Hana Al-Omair and Shaheed Ameen, were the stars. Omair was presented the Golden Palm Tree for her short drama, “Complain,” which tells the story of a hospital worker’s woeful life. Ameen’s runner-up short film, “Eye & Mermaid,” is a fantasy about a girl who learns that her father tortured a mermaid to take coveted black pearls.
Shortly after the awards ceremony, though, the country’s always-busy Twitter world lit up with rage from users over images showing unrelated men and women freely mixing.
“I didn’t say change would be easy,” said Baqer, 25, whose latest short documentary, “Nepal,” chronicles a group of Saudi photographers visiting the Himalayas. The regular Saudi TV cable packages have dozens of movie channels with a heavy emphasis on Hollywood and Bollywood.
Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal is principal owner of the Rotana media empire, which includes radio stations, a record label and more than a dozen TV channels — which show Fox programs and movies as part of joint investments between Waleed and Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox.
Waleed has shown his interest in Saudi filmmaking, helping produce the best-known Saudi-made film to date, “Wadjda,” a feature-length drama about an 11-year-old Saudi girl’s yearning for a green bicycle and the cultural and personal barriers she overcomes to get it.
The film, released in 2012, was Saudi Arabia’s first official bid for an Academy Award in the foreign-language category. A film from rival Iran, “A Separation,” took that Oscar in 2012. “Wadjda” was not selected as an Oscar finalist, but it subsequently earned a nomination at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) awards.
“I feel Saudi is opening up and it is a great opportunity now for people to bring new concepts to the society,” the film’s director, Haifaa Al-Mansour, told Screen Daily in 2012. “Saudi is going through a very important shift in its history.”
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