Three years after cinemas reopened in Saudi Arabia for the first time in a generation, the biggest challenge to the thriving movie industry is funding, the head of the new Saudi Cinema Association says.
Hana Al-Omair was named chairwoman of the association after it was registered by ministerial decree on August 22.
In an interview with Al-Fanar Media, she described her appointment as “a reward for my previous efforts for years to develop this sector.” She added: “We were fighting tooth and nail when society viewed us as crazy people.”
Al-Omair began work as a screenplay writer in 2008, 25 years after the Saudi government closed cinemas throughout the country. But the ban did not apply to private showings and production.
That year, she won the award for best script at the Saudi Film Festival for “Hadaf” (“Goal”), about a girl who dreams of becoming a professional soccer player.
Other awards followed for movies on which she worked as script-writer or director, including “Complaint,” which won the Golden Palm Tree at the 2015 Saudi Film Festival. Last year, she directed the eight-part series “Whispers,” the first Saudi series on Netflix.
“We were fighting tooth and nail when society viewed us as crazy people.”Hana Al-Omair
Describing her efforts to develop the Saudi film sector
At first, she was usually the only woman on the set, but some 50 women took part in the production of “Whispers.”
Encouraged by Her Family
The idea for the Saudi Cinema Association came from professionals eager to take advantage of the new official interest in the local film industry.
The association has three goals: to enrich the knowledge and visual content in cinema, to spread cinematic culture, and to improve the capabilities of cinema professionals.
Al-Omair sees the association as a communication channel between filmmakers and the outside world, thanks to its artistic activities and cinema-related publications.
Born in Beirut but brought up in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, she says that despite the 35-year ban on movie houses, social openness “encouraged many Saudi women to study cinema.” (See a related article, “Film Studies Thrive in Saudi Arabia, Promising Jobs and Cultural Change.”)
The local movie industry was able to produce sensitive films dealing with women’s lives, thanks to the presence of many Saudi actresses capable of playing roles in these emerging works, she says.
Al-Omair’s father studied at the American University in Beirut, and her mother was among the first educated women in Saudi Arabia. Her parents encouraged her to read literature and watch cinema on local television, which displayed Gulf channels. They also provided videotapes of Arab and European films.
The films of the Lebanese filmmaker Burhan Alawiya and the Egyptian director Khairy Beshara “are an art school, the visual equivalent of literature, the reason behind my attachment to artistic films, and studying cinema more deeply.”
‘The Visual Equivalent of Literature’
Al-Omair says her biggest cinematic influences were the Lebanese filmmaker Burhan Alawiya and the Egyptian director Khairy Beshara. Their work showed that cinema was “a space to raise issues closest to the heart and conscience, and to simulate real-life stories and human lives with their various interactions,” she said.
“Alawiya and Beshara films are an art school, the visual equivalent of literature,” she said, “the reason behind my attachment to artistic films, and studying cinema more deeply.”
Al-Omair studied translation at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland and at King Saud University before writing about cinema for a number of Saudi newspapers. Her first break came in 2008 when she worked as a screenwriter for the first time.
As well as screenwriting and directing, she also participated as a jurist in many festivals and art competitions, including the Saudi Film Festival, and the Colors of Saudi Short Film Competition. She was chosen by the Saudi Ministry of Culture as a supervisor of Saudi female cinema students in France.
Despite the boom in the Saudi cinema industry, there are still obstacles at the level of film production and of university study, inside and outside the Kingdom.
Currently, three Saudi universities offer filmmaking programs: Effat University and Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University, both for women, and Prince Mohammad bin Fahd University.
“Dreams about taking the Saudi cinema to a global level are great. Improving and enhancing local experiences is a supreme goal we seek to achieve in the coming years, especially since our profession has become highly regarded by society.”
Funding Is Weak
“The funding is still weak, compared to the films we hope to produce, given that it is currently limited to government agencies,” said Al-Omair.
A report from the British Council on the Saudi film industry last year showed that 43 percent of the respondents mentioned the lack of funding as one of the biggest obstacles in the film industry, while 13 percent cited the lack of access to skilled cast and crew members, and 11 percent cited the lack of film training and education opportunities.
A recent government decision to exempt Saudi films from taxes is “a great thing,” Al-Omair said, because it “will encourage investors to enter the cinema sector.”
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By 2030, the General Commission for Audiovisual Media in Saudi Arabia expects the number of cinemas to hit 350, screening 2,500 films throughout the Kingdom, with a film industry valued at one billion dollars.
Al-Omair says Saudi culture has a huge store of stories, waiting to be unveiled.
“Dreams about taking the Saudi cinema to a global level are great,” she said, “Improving and enhancing local experiences is a supreme goal we seek to achieve in the coming years, especially since our profession has become highly regarded by society.”