The burgeoning Saudi film industry, already undergoing rapid growth before the 2020 pandemic, is now further propelled by the eagerness of Saudi Arabia’s population of 35 million people to return from socially distanced life under the pandemic to go out and visit cinemas, tourist attractions, theme parks, and other sights and entertainment options. The announcement in 2018 that cinemas would not only return to the country but spread across the country in only a matter of years with the government’s backing, accelerated the nascent industry’s growth even further. The films coming out of the Kingdom paint a picture of the country’s culture and society and the aspirations of Saudi Arabia’s youngest generation for their future. For U.S. and international audiences, there are several Saudi productions available now to stream from home.
Released in 2012, “Wadjda” is a Saudi Arabian drama film written and directed by Haifaa al-Mansour in her feature directorial debut. It was the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and the first feature-length film made by a female Saudi director. The movie depicts an enterprising Saudi girl who signs up for her school’s Koran recitation competition in the hopes of raising the remaining funds she needs to buy a green bicycle that has captured her interest. Wadjda was Saudi Arabia’s first ever submission to the Oscars in the Best Foreign Language Film category and earned a nomination for Best Foreign Film at the 2014 BAFTA Awards. It first premiered at the 2012 Venice Film Festival to widespread critical acclaim.
Where to watch: Netflix
Barakah Meets Barakah
“Barakah Meets Barakah,” released in 2016, is Saudi Arabia’s first romantic comedy and a full-length feature film directed and written by Mahmoud Sabbagh. The film was shot entirely in Jeddah, which is also the setting of the story, in which Barakah, a laid-back civil servant from the middle class, meets a wealthy video blogger named Bibi. The couple find an authentic connection, but finding appropriate times and places to meet prove difficult and results in “a remarkably candid Saudi Arabian love story which uses stabs of acerbic humor as a counterweight to the difficulties the couple face,” according to a review by Variety. Barakah Meets Barakah was premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival to positive reviews from critics.
Where to watch: Netflix
Six Windows in the Desert
Another Saudi production available on Netflix is an anthological mini-series called “Six Windows in the Desert,” described by GQ Middle East as a collection of shorts from various genres “depicting the nuances of Saudi Arabian culture.” The first in the series of short films is “Wasati,” which retells the story of a 2006 riot at a Riyadh theater during a play whose message was unpopular with religious extremists; the story is told from the perspective of a young man with irreversible macular degeneration who travels with his friend across Saudi Arabia and tries to experience the country’s culture and see its sights before losing his vision. Wasati won awards for Best Director and Best Foreign Film at Brooklyn, New York’s Williamsburg Independent Film Festival in 2017. Another standout short film in the series is called “Is Sumyati Going to Hell?” – this film, which won the award for Best Foreign Short Film at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival Awards in 2017, explores the life and mistreatment of the foreign live-in staff of a Saudi household. The rest of the series is comprised of short films that explore Saudi cultural and generational differences, prejudices, societal taboos, social and gender issues, and the human psyche. “The Rat,” an abstract short film with a Kafkaesque depiction of a young civil servant’s mental anguish, is followed by “27th of Shaban,” which depicts entrenched social taboos around dating, and “Curtain,” which closes out the series with insights into a female nurse’s workplace harassment and religious customs around wearing the niqab. Netflix acquired the rights to the films from the Saudi startup studio Telfaz11 Studios.
Where to watch: Netflix
Coming Soon from Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia has many more productions in the works that have not yet been released to the general public. Among them is the full-length feature film “Scales,” directed by Jeddah-born Shahad Ameen, which has been described as a “feminist parable set in a dystopian landscape” and received international attention when it premiered at the 2019 Venice International Film Festival and was selected as Saudi Arabia’s entry for the Best International Feature Film at the 93rd Academy Awards. A new upcoming feature film, “Champions,” is about a Saudi soccer team of boys with special needs and just recently concluded its filming in Jeddah in February 2021. The film is directed by the Oscar-winning producer Andrés Vicente Gómez and is planned for release later in 2021. Gómez previously directed “Born a King,” the first international film partially shot in Saudi Arabia.
Other internationally recognized productions include “Al Qatt,” a documentary on one of the Kingdom’s oldest art forms developed by women from the southern Asir region; “Alkaif,” a documentary about the role of coffee in the social fabric of Saudi Arabia; “The Bliss of Being No One,” a dialogue-driven short film about an encounter between a man who lost his family and an elderly hitchhiker he picks up while on a road trip; “Coexistence,” a film about the Shia-Sunni divide and its manifestation between two college roommates; and “Don’t Go Too Far,” written and directed by Maram Taibah, a writer who was raised in Saudi Arabia and previously directed “Munukeer,” a short film about a Saudi housewife and her troubled marriage. “Don’t Go Too Far,” her latest release about a mentally disabled Arab man separated from his caretaker in the New York subway, screened at Cannes Short Film Corner, Beirut International Women Film Festival, and Dubai Film Festival, while “Munukeer” and Saudi director Musab Alamri’s “Coexistence” also screened at Cannes.
Learn More: please see our other featured article on the upcoming first inaugural Red Sea International Film Festival and the many tremendous changes coming to the country’s film and cinema sector: click here.