Early in life, Razan Al Soghayer, a 23-year-old Saudi filmmaker, wanted to study cinema. At the time, Saudi universities did offer a major in cinema. Therefore, she had no option but to study media at King Faisal University. In 2018, things changed, and she was able to study film directing in France, on the first government scholarship in this field.
Al Soghayer was one of ten Saudi female students chosen by the Saudi Film Council (now known as the Saudi Film Commission) to attend a four-month training course at La Fémis, the French national film school, which is part of Université PSL (Paris Sciences et Lettres).
Vision 2030 and Saudi Women
In a Zoom interview, Al Soghayer told Al-Fanar Media that studying abroad widened her knowledge of the film industry. It also helped determine her goal to become a film director or a scriptwriter, and test her abilities in directing works she did not write.
“Social change and official interest in supporting the film industry came at a crucial time. We are ready to create a cinema that represents us as Saudis.”Razan Al Soghayer
Saudi film director
Al Soghayer’s personal concept of cinema is embodied in her projects, like depicting the impact of loss in her first film, “Memories Room”, upon her return from France. In her second short film, “A Breath”, she recounted the story of a married couple trying to maintain a balance in their relationship and the world. The film has been shown in the United Kingdom and at the Red Sea International Film Festival.
Since Saudi Arabia launched “Vision 2030” in 2016, the kingdom has witnessed major changes, including allowing women to drive cars, reopening cinemas, and establishing the General Entertainment Authority. The authority also permitted men and women to mix in public places.
Next year, Al Soghayer will travel to study for a master’s degree in cinema at University of the Arts London, under a new cultural scholarship programme launched by the Saudi Ministry of Culture in 2020.
“Social change and official interest in supporting the film industry came at a crucial time,” she said. “We are ready to create a cinema that represents us as Saudis, to develop our identity and employ the knowledge we have gained from abroad.”
The Road to Cannes
The film director Hajar Alnaim, 32, was also able to study cinema abroad.
Alnaim studied information systems at King Faisal University before exceptionally getting a King Abdullah scholarship, in 2017, to study for a master’s degree in film and television production at Loyola Marymount University, in Los Angeles. At the time, the King Abdullah scholarship did not include the arts.
Alnaim told Al-Fanar Media that studying cinema in the United States made her more aware of the importance of learning in the film industry and the need to fill gaps in the academic programmes offered by some Saudi universities.
The main problem for film students in Saudi Arabia, after limited social openness, lies in the kingdom’s lack of a cinema industry, Alnaim said.
She explained: “This is an inspiration-based industry. The new generation that wants to study needs inspirational models.”
Students often think only of working as directors and producers, leaving other disciplines vacant, she said.
“Curriculum planning and teaching methods need to be changed. The teaching method abroad depends on analysis, criticism, and student research. The main problem here lies in the lack of a practical side.”Hala Alhaid
Saudi filmmaker and academic
“They need to know, before sending them on scholarships, that there are other jobs in the film industry, such as assistant directors and stylists.”
In her previous work as head of the Saudi Film Council’s Talent Development Department, Alnaim tried to address these problems by focusing on education.
Over a year and a half, she helped the council organize ten workshops in several Saudi cities. She has also organized workshops in the United States, France, and Britain.
As a supervisor of the design of the new cultural scholarship programme, she also helped determine the universities to send students to, to study cinema.
She added: “Raising awareness about cinemas as a window for raising different issues and voices is necessary and important, to enable the transformations the kingdom has experienced over the past five years to be reflected in a special way in the cinema.”
Alnaim, whose short film “Detained” participated in the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, feels a responsibility to encourage other Saudi women and help them achieve their dreams in filmmaking.
To achieve that, she established a company to develop the educational aspect of the film industry, by organizing training and introductory arts workshops. She is also a co-founder of the “Her Films Community”, which helps develop talents and raises awareness about film studies.
Animation Film Study
The director and academic Hala Alhaid, 27, is another young Saudi woman who studied cinema abroad.
Alhaid began her cinematic journey while studying audiovisual media at King Saud University. As an amateur, she used her mobile phone to learn animation techniques and participated in Arab film festivals.
After obtaining her bachelor’s degree, she moved to the United States to attend a training course at the New York Film Academy in animation techniques, at her personal expense. Later on, she was sent by King Saud University to study a master’s in digital arts, at the Pratt Institute in New York. She was the first student in the kingdom’s history to be sent by an academic institution to study this specialty.
Alhaid, who is a teaching assistant at King Saud University, told Al-Fanar Media that she aspires to develop the animated film industry to see Saudi examples in it, and for it not to be limited to men. Through teaching animation, Alhaid seeks to change curricula and invent ways to enhance students’ abilities.
[Enjoying this article? Subscribe to our free newsletter.]
“Curriculum planning and teaching methods need to be changed,” she said. “The teaching method abroad depends on analysis, criticism, and student research. The main problem here lies in the lack of a practical side, while focusing on research.”
Alhaid’s animated film “The Palm Witch” has been shown in several Arab film festivals. She is currently working on directing a feature film.
Diversification of Scholarship Programmes
Hana Al-Omair, chairwoman of the first Saudi Cinema Association, acknowledges the “great change” resulting from art scholarship programmes that allow young people to gain experience in the film industry.
Al-Omair, who has supervised similar training workshops, told Al-Fanar Media: “The continuity of such programmes is necessary. Making use of workshops outside the kingdom is more beneficial than bringing mentors from abroad.”
Al-Omair also advises diversifying study programmes to include new fields, such as film production, set design, and sound engineering, and to include all study levels.