Saudi Arabia: Climate For Change

Saudi Movie Makes its Mark

A groundbreaking movie with a social message is the first step towards building a film industry in the kingdom

Several cinemas are being built in Saudi Arabia in anticipation of the authorities lifting the ban on the public showing of movies, says Saudi film producer Ayman Al-Halawani.

As one of the team that made Keif Al Hal, the first ever feature-length Saudi film, which this year has been given a pioneering presence in movie-houses across the Middle East, Al-Halawani is looking forward to the day when the film can be shown in the kingdom.

He is also hoping that the worldwide interest the film has aroused, and the enthusiastic reception it received at this year's Cannes film festival, may persuade movie distributors that it would be worth showing in the U.S.

“The attention the film has received is incredible,” says Al-Halawani. “It was not a big budget film. If I had known that it was going to receive so much attention, I would have spent three times as much.”

Keif Al Hal (How Are You) is a comedy-drama, which depicts the tension between moderates and conservatives in the kingdom and the conflict experienced by the young as they try to embrace globalization, while retaining cherished Islamic values.

The story it tells is a Saudi one and it features a cast that is 70 percent Saudi using the Saudi Arabic dialect.

Al-Halawani says one of his goals was to focus on the rights of Saudi women to work, make decisions and have ambitions.

The film producer is general manager of Rotana Audiovisual, owned by reform-minded Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. Al-Halawani says the objectives of the film are fully supported by the prince and that it was a bold decision by his boss to go ahead with such a film, something no producer had done before.

“We cannot release the movie in our own country, but due to Rotana's size we can distribute it in theaters outside the kingdom, on DVD, on pay-per-view TV and on the Rotana channel,” he says.

“Also, we wanted to take this step. If no one did so, it would never happen. This is the first step to build this industry in Saudi Arabia.”

Al-Halawani's background is in investment banking, from where he moved into entertainment finance and film production. He emphasizes that Keif Al Hal is not a heavy drama movie. “It presents important issues, but in a light way. I thought this was very important, so as not to turn people off and to keep the demographic target market bigger.”

Prince Alwaleed pointed out recently that having researched the matter thoroughly, he had found nothing in Islam that prohibits movies. As media communications have developed in the West, particularly since the advent of satellite television, it has been increasingly difficult for the kingdom's traditionally conservative society to resist them.

This has produced many paradoxes, says Al-Halawani. “For example, certain scenes on a DVD are censored, yet they can be seen on satellite TV. Saudi regulations do not match with each other in terms of the level of exposure. Nothing is illegal, just banned in the sense that permits are not given.”

Following the success of Keif Al Hal, Rotana has several other projects under way that will show aspects of Saudi culture in a manner that should be of interest in the West. “We are trying very hard not to preach because that dilutes the message,” says Al-Halawani. “We also have to make sure that our films are commercially attractive for release in the United States. And to get any movie released nationwide at more than 300 screens it has to have some big names.

“The movie Babel with Brad Pitt is the kind of movie that can cross borders. It has to be designed from the beginning to achieve that, so the projects we are working on for the North American market are co-productions and should have a mixed cast.”

Al-Halawani says that, as a producer, he would like to show extremists from another perspective. “In the West, extremists are regarded in one view, mainly a political one. I want to show where they come from – the social issues involved and how they deal with their own society, far away from politics, and why they become this way.

“I also want to show people who are in between, who are normal but influenced by these extremists. I want to show that these people are human, that they cry and they laugh.”