Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat—Saudi filmmaking has been in the spotlight recently after the success of the highly acclaimed Wadjda, which picked up a number of prizes on the international film festival circuit. The film’s Saudi director, Haifaa Al-Mansour, is now directing a new Hollywood film about the life of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley called A Storm in the Stars.
But she is not the first Saudi to “make it big” in Tinseltown. In the 1930s, Khalil Ibrahim Al-Rawaf, a Saudi camel herder and trader, arrived in the United States by boat accompanied by his American wife, Frances. He was the first Saudi to emigrate to the United States. Eventually, he became the first Arab to appear in a Hollywood movie when he performed alongside silver-screen legend John Wayne in the 1937 film I Cover the War, in which he played a Bedouin guard—thus predating Omar Sharif’s Oscar-nominated Hollywood debut in Lawrence of Arabia by 26 years.
Back in Riyadh in the 21st century, Saudi actor Abdullah Al-Senani is hoping to follow in Rawaf’s footsteps and also break into Hollywood—by making a film about Rawaf himself.
Senani says he has been working for two years nonstop on his “life’s work,” a biopic about Rawaf’s remarkable life, charting his travels from his hometown in Najd in Saudi Arabia, to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and, eventually, the US. It is largely based on Rawaf’s own autobiography, A Najdi in America.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Senani said: “This film will show how Rawaf went from Buraidah in Saudi Arabia, then to Iraq, where he studied English, and then to the Levant, where he married and took his wife to Haifa, and from there to the US.”
After landing a job as a consultant on Hollywood films featuring Arabs, Rawaf eventually became more involved in more technical aspects of filmmaking, before getting in front of the camera for his 1937 acting debut.
Rawaf was highly impressed with film as an art form, and during the 1940s tried to produce a movie in Saudi Arabia—a dream he never managed to accomplish due to opposition to the idea in the Kingdom, particularly in his native Najd.
Like Rawaf, Senani is facing problems with his own film project, namely the budget. With the bulk of the movie shot in the US, where Rawaf spent half his entire life, production costs are beginning to spiral out of control.
But despite this being a biopic, Senani says the film will steer away from focusing on Rawaf’s personal life—he was married three times, to two Americans and one Egyptian—and will instead focus on his film work and his transition to the way of life in the US.
Like Rawaf, Senani laments the dearth in filmmaking in the Kingdom, especially since, he says, Saudis are the largest movie audience in the entire Arab world. Saudis love movies so much, Senani says, that some of those traveling abroad spend considerable amounts of money to watch films they cannot find in the Kingdom.
“Art has become a significant part of human life, and this art-form [cinema] is also financially lucrative,” he says. A film industry in Saudi Arabia would also reflect well on the country’s economy, he believes, with film sets and studios employing hundreds of people for a single project, from crew to actors and extras to administrative staff for what are usually projects costing millions of dollars. In this way Senani thinks filmmaking can become a boon for Saudi society, and not something to be wary of.
Senani believes it is important to raise awareness of filmmaking among socially conservative Saudis in particular, who may be opposed to films. Another crucial step to get a fledgling filmmaking industry going would be education. Senani has already urged the Ministry of Higher Education in the Kingdom to establish specialized colleges and higher education departments for filmmaking.
But he has also taken the issue one step further: he is hoping to start a new department at the College of Applied and Theoretical Sciences at the King Saud University in Jeddah, where he currently works as a lecturer. He says a number of such departments in other countries eventually spun off from their parent organization to become independent film schools—the talent factories and dynamos of any would-be domestic film industry, and something he hopes will mean aspiring young Saudi filmmakers and actors won’t need to travel all the way to the US before making or appearing in a film.