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Move over Hollywood, it’s Arab time at Cannes film festival

Clothing, Apparel, Person Ammar Abd Rabbo
Nayla Al Khaja, the first female film writer, director and producer in the United Arab Emirates with AR Rahman, an Indian film composer

The Middle East is one of the big talking points among the international film set at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, especially the presence of Saudi Arabia which unveiled big-ticket incentives to lure Hollywood and Bollywood producers to the kingdom.

“I think in the past [the Middle East] always had some sort of presence but nobody was truly talking about it,” international casting agent and CEO of Miranda Davidson Studios, Miranda Davidson told AGBI. 

“But now I feel like it’s a real conversation. The Saudi Pavilion’s there this year and they’re talking about Arab cinema now, and it’s just becoming so much more tangible,” she said.

“The UAE and Saudi are becoming a powerhouse together. People think there’s this rivalry between them but actually I think that together they’re becoming a powerhouse [in the film industry].”

This week Saudi Arabia launched Film Saudi, a new cash rebate programme offering producers up to 40 percent back on film productions carried out in the Arab country.

In 2012 The Abu Dhabi Film Commission launched a similar programme, offering up to 30 percent in a bid to entice Hollywood producers.

Abdullah Al Eyaf, CEO of the Saudi Film Commission, left, with Saudi producer Aymen Khoja
Abdullah Al Eyaf, CEO of the Saudi Film Commission, left, with Saudi producer Aymen Khoja

“We are delighted to open applications for our cash rebate programme ‘Film Saudi’ and welcome productions to Saudi Arabia,” Abdullah Al Eyaf, CEO of the Saudi Film Commission, said.

“The film industry is rapidly accelerating as we continue to invest in training our local crews and developing our infrastructure to ensure we are in a position to support all productions.”

Davidson, whose UAE-based studio has casted for a number of Hollywood blockbusters including the seventh installment of the Fast and Furious films and Star Trek Beyond, said the region’s film industry is rapidly evolving after the lifting of Saudi Arabia’s 35-year ban on movie screening in 2018.

“In the last two years, keeping the Covid factor in mind, I’ve probably done more film and high-profile TV in the region than in the last ten years,” she said. 

“With Saudi opening up and the industry generally diversifying globally, 2023 is going to be a whole different ball game.”

The Saudi Pavilion is a hub for networking among the film industry's biggest names
The Saudi Pavilion is a hub for networking among the film industry’s biggest names

Davidson added that MGM’s thriller mini-series Last Light, adapted from Alex Scarrow’s bestselling novel and starring Matthew Fox and Joanne Froggatt, will feature both Saudi and Emirati talent.

“We booked two Saudi [nationals] and one Emirati [national] in speaking roles in MGM’s Last Light, which is super exciting,” she said. 

Award-winning UAE-based independent filmmaker Faisal Hashmi, whose short film Perfect Living screened at the Cannes Film Festival Short Film Corner in 2011, praised the French festival’s selection this year.

“The festival has always been questioned in terms of how much effort it puts into diversifying its films,” he said.

“It seems like it’s been a concentrated effort to represent more than just European cinema – that’s usually been the focus of the festival,” he added.

Hashmi said he believed that Saudi Arabia’s “big presence” at the festival could help to boost global awareness of what the kingdom has to offer in terms of co-financing, locations for filming and filmmaker partnerships.

“The interesting thing about Saudi is that it’s huge,” he added. “For example, there are places like AlUla, which look like Petra.

“So now Saudi is one of the contenders for that sort of rocky landscape. It’s undiscovered and there’s an excitement around it.”

Over the past 18 months, Saudi Arabia has provided the backdrop for three major Hollywood films: Ric Roman Waugh’s upcoming action thriller Kandahar starring Gerard Butler, filmed in AlUla and Jeddah; Rupert Wyatt’s historical epic Desert Warrior, which stars Anthony Mackie and Ben Kingsley, shot in the new city-state of Neom and the region of Tabuk; and the Russo brothers’ Apple TV+ crime drama Cherry, starring Tom Holland, which was shot in AlUla and Riyadh.

Speaking from Cannes, Emirati filmmaker Nayla Al Khaja, said she is seeing “quite a lot of Middle Eastern presence” at the festival this year, both on the red carpet and in terms of the number of Arab filmmakers she’s spotted between various meetings. 

International stars hit the red carpet at the 75th Cannes Film FestivalReuters/Stephane Mahe
International stars hit the red carpet at the 75th Cannes Film Festival

Commenting on the Saudi film industry in particular, in view of the kingdom’s pavilion at Cannes, Al Khaja said she believes that Saudi’s burgeoning film industry will propel the region’s movie makers to thrive. 

“I like that they [Saudi] have an entire ecosystem integrated for film, which focuses on education, film marketing, film festivals, grants, production and locations services,” she said.

Al Khaja, who has teamed up with Oscar, BAFTA-and Grammy-winning Indian composer AR Rahman for her upcoming production Baab, which she was promoting at the French festival this week, added that she hopes her film will help bolster the UAE and wider region’s film sector. 

“If [Baab] does really well then it will have an incredible trickle effect to the next generation and I hope it will inspire the youth to challenge their own work and go international,” she said.

Star agent Davidson added that the striking locations and crop of diverse local film talent will be a huge draw for international filmmakers – a point the casting expert has made to Hollywood producers and directors of some of the biggest, loudest and highest-grossing movies of all time.

“The UAE has such a diverse landscape but also diverse people,” she said. 

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