If art is the window to man’s soul, then film could be seen as the window to a culture’s soul. “This is the right time — and film is the best way — to tell our story,” says Ahmed Al Mulla, director of the Saudi Film Festival. “In cinema, you have it all: poetry, music, costumes, food, literature. You can tell the full story of life through film.”
In 2018, as part of the Saudi Vision 2030 initiative, the government began opening new cinemas all over the kingdom for the first time in more than 30 years. Until the initiative, Al Mulla says, films were largely watched on VHS and DVD. And many Saudi-made films were screened at film festivals abroad. “We have a lot of young artistic talent in the film industry in Saudi now. They’ve been all over the world studying, and they have come back and are working in every aspect of film,” Al Mulla says.
Al Mulla says he hopes that the Saudi Film Festival (which was produced virtually in 2020) will continue to be a growing resource for filmmakers domestically — and that it will build awareness of the Saudi film industry abroad. Since the initiative started in 2018, Al Mulla says Saudi has already become the 10th-largest importer of foreign films. And although he is a big fan of Spanish director Pedro Almodovar’s films, he has a voracious appetite for Saudi films, from both established and up-and-coming directors.
“Saudi Arabia is very big. That gives us a lot of rich culture to draw from, from the south to the north, and the east to the west. I think we have many stories still to tell about our heritage. Saudi Arabia is full of treasures,” Al Mulla says. And although no one film can explain an entire culture, here are three films produced in the past decade that Al Mulla says will give you a little taste of Saudi life.
Wadjda was the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, and the first feature-length film made by a female Saudi director, Haifaa Al-Mansour. The film centers on a young Saudi girl who signs on for her school’s Quran recitation competition as a way to raise money to buy the green bicycle that has captured her interest — so that she can ride it in a race against her friend (a boy).
During a trip they’re taking together, an adolescent son named Waleed and his middle-aged father, Nasser, receive word that Nasser’s father is seriously ill. The men head for Nasser’s rural hometown south of Riyadh, and their relationship becomes strained after a series of unforeseen events. Waleed rebels against his father’s guardianship amid the tense atmosphere of his dying grandfather. “The relationship between father and son is one of the deepest and strongest themes in Saudi culture,” Al Mulla says.
In the early 2000s in Riyadh, a passionate photographer named Majid owns a studio with his business partner and close friend. Everything is going smoothly until Majid mysteriously finds memory loss pills prescribed to him. Things become more complicated when complete strangers recognize him, seemingly, from a past life. As Majid searches for answers, he confronts his past, facing his fears and the people closest to him.
Can’t get enough Saudi culture? Check out the work of three of Saudi’s brightest female artists here.
— Didi Gluck