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Modern Saudi gets its close-up at Jeddah film festival

Faris Godus (right) with brother Sohayb and actress Najm, the stars of his film Fever Dream Andrew Hammond
Director Faris Godus (right) with brother Sohayb and actress Najm, the stars of his film Fever Dream
  • Red Sea festival showcases fresh talent
  • Film Commission launched in 2020
  • Mass audience now available

The new Saudi Arabia seen on screen at the Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah is barely recognisable from the country where religious mores prevented the mingling of unrelated men and women, and suspicions of foreigners cast a long shadow. 

Among the stories being told at this month’s festival are those of a young camel jockey who exposes an unscrupulous owner using a girl in disguise as one of his riders; a woman who develops a close bond with her driver who chaperones her secret life of dating; and a former football hero who enlists his daughter to rebuild his reputation via social media. 

The kingdom’s ban on cinema houses was lifted in 2018 and a domestic film industry kicked off with the establishment of the Film Commission in 2020, moving Saudi film makers away from the rarified atmosphere of the foreign festival circuit and towards a mass audience at home. 

Now Saudis are able to reflect on the experience of that transition through film itself. 

“I wrote this film as a reflection on my teenage years,” said Sara Balghonaim, director of Me and Aydarous, a short film in which the protagonist’s main relationship is with her driver. 

“It was shot two and a half years ago and the situation was a bit different then. It was difficult to find an actress to play the role, since it was shot in Riyadh, and there were still a lot of social taboos around a woman going on a date.” 

Fever Dream by Faris Godus is a brilliant skit on the new generation of influencers and public relations experts who dominate the public sphere, constantly peppering their language with phrases in English to display education and assert social superiority. 

Godus, who got his training with the Saudi YouTube content production company Telfaz11, said the viewer is deliberately left unsure of who the good guys and bad guys really are. The real estate corruption it depicts also seems like a sly form of social commentary. 

“It’s a film about the dreams of the era,” Godus said on the red carpet. “It’s a journey with different forces struggling against each other, and it’s not clear who is the hero of the tale or where good and evil lie. Watching it, you end up rooting for the actor that you like.”

Youth-driven production houses such as Telfaz11, building up an online presence for several years before social restrictions were lifted, have taken the box office by storm, with hits including 2002’s Sattar. Overall, though, the Tom Cruise blockbuster Top Gun Maverick is the highest Saudi earner. 

Many Saudis have been encouraged to try their luck in the industry. Mohammed Akindi from Jeddah was one of a room full of budding directors, producers and actors at the film festival who attended a session with the Hollywood casting director Margery Simkin on December 6. 

Akindi, an insurance company clerk trying to make it in acting, complained about casting directors not giving him a chance to try for roles outside his box. Afterwards, he complained about closed networks preventing newcomers from getting a look-in. 

“Cinema is still new here in Saudi Arabia, so everyone wants to get the whole cake. They don’t want to share it or have us participate with them,” he said. 

“Some actors are really good and help us; they let us know about casting opportunities. But when I ask a casting agency about future projects, they just say, ‘Follow us on Instagram.’” 

Censorship can still be seen in the films’ lack of overt criticism of government policies, but Saudis now find themselves in the odd position of having more social freedoms than Iranians. 

Farnoosh Samadi, an Iranian writer-director, brought her short film Titanic to the festival. The 15-minute drama is a clever exposé of film censorship but she told the audience in Jeddah that she will only show it to a small group of people involved in making it.

“Censorship is a really big issue in Iran and it was always one of the most important subjects for me as a woman,” she said. “When I wanted to make this short film, I was a little afraid.”

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