Dammam, Asharq Al-Awsat—Young Saudis continue to make significant strides in filmmaking despite their country’s reservations towards cinema. This is largely due to the success of their work abroad in Gulf and global film festivals, despite the fact that most of their films focus on issues particular to life in Saudi Arabia.
In light of the decline in the amount of movie theaters in Saudi Arabia, filmmakers are resorting to posting their work on social networking sites in order to reach their audiences more quickly.
Saudi filmmaker Abdullah Al-Eyaf spoke about the difficulties facing youth cinema in Saudi Arabia, saying: “Not screening movies inside Saudi Arabia takes away from the movies’ societal influence, despite the fact that they deal with local issues, but there is no other solution.” He refuses to blame the younger generation for the decline in Saudi cinema, arguing that Saudi youths work very hard to get movies shown but are ignored by the official and non-official authorities.
Mr. Eyaf fears that making films primarily for foreign audiences will lead to a film industry that “doesn’t reflect the values of Saudi society.” He added that it could lead to an orphaned film industry whose products no longer have a connection to a particular time or place. This in turn would dilute the quality of the films and deprive them of their cultural heritage, which ultimately enriches the audience’s experience.
Film producer Talal Ayel differs with Mr. Eyaf in this regard. He argues that showing Saudi films abroad does not diminish from the films’ importance, adding that every film industry exports its products to foreign audiences. He contends that “the problem is that they do not get shown to the domestic audience, and thus they do not receive any plaudits or recognition in Saudi Arabia despite the fact that many of them have excelled at regional and international film festivals.”
Film critic Fahd Al-Osta pointed out that the subject matter of youth cinema most often revolves around the current reality and topical social issues. He says that young Saudi moviemakers experienced a major breakthrough around four years ago with many receiving widespread acclaim at international film festivals. However this trend did not persist and was recently eclipsed by screenings on social networking sites.
Mr. Osta stated that the achievements of Saudi youth cinema may be somewhat overblown, but at the same time he contends that the videos being posted on YouTube—which he feels are increasing in professionalism and overall quality all the time—are not getting the credit they deserve.
“Discussions about the restraints on Saudi cinema are merely linguistic exercises at this point. Young people no longer need to wait at the doors of the state censors to receive permission to film and screen movies. They can produce what they please with simply a digital phone that fits in the palm of their hands. These new technologies have placed everyone in a race against time, and thus you have short experiences encapsulated in 140 letters on Twitter, and video clips no longer than 36 seconds on Keek, which force the creators to compress their message to fit these tight limitations.”
Mohammed Bazaid, the anchor of the satirical news program “Quarter to Nine” broadcast on YouTube, and of “Al-Nushra Al…” broadcast on Rotana Gulf, believes that social networking sites have become the basis of a new social fabric that allows for direct interaction with topical issues. He said that it’s impossible to accurately gauge the social networks’ impact on society, but he did indicate that this form of communication creates a collision of contrasting ideas which more often than not produces positive results.
Mr. Ayel concurs that video-posting websites have an overall positive effect and their popularity shows how viewers are drawn to visual material in general, saying, “Most people used to ignore films made by Saudi directors due to unfamiliarity, but these sites came along and made the works of these independent filmmakers more accessible. The most important thing about these social networking sites is that they dispel one’s fear of the camera, which encourages all walks of life and all age groups to post and contribute.”
Mr. Eyaf shares Mr. Ayel’s point of view, and adds that the popularity of these video sites pays testament to the power of video as a means of communication, especially among the younger generations. These sites have prompted many to try their hand at expressing a message through film. Sites like YouTube allow people to show off their talents by giving them direct access to a mass audience without having to deal with the many impediments present in the world of television. This has enabled creative actors and talented writers to rise to the surface and undercut the traditional TV format with their ingenuity and novelty.
A Tech-Precocious Generation
Programmer Mohammed Badawi describes the Saudi youth as highly adept at adopting and using new technology. He emphasized that although they may be rough around the edges at first, they quickly become proficient, which grants the impression that there will be a technologically savvy culture in the future that has its foundation in early exposure in school.
Mr. Badawi said that the new media services offered by social networking platforms have reinforced the “micro” concept first pioneered by the micro-blogging site Twitter and the media sharing site Facebook. At the beginning this form was criticized for emphasizing the superficial, but users soon adjusted and now each section of society interacts through these networks in accordance with their own norms and standards, which is often referred to as shortcut culture.
Mr. Badawi also feels that smartphones have played a vital role in bringing about this shortcut culture. He says that Keek, which allows users to post video clips no longer than 36 seconds, allots ample time for a person to express his or her thoughts. He also believes that due to the inherent power of visual images, this medium can express much more than can be expressed in 140 characters; referencing the popular saying “a picture is worth thousand words”. Keek’s “micro-vlog” layout allows ordinary people to directly exchange their ideas among their friends.
Mr. Badawi added that Keek has been the cause of breaches of privacy that have worried the community, but he stressed that the ingenuity of young Saudis will find a way to utilize this technology in a positive manner, as happened previously with the artists who rose to fame through their YouTube programs.
Given social networking sites’ freedom from moral restrictions or oversight, young people occasionally upload footage considered not in keeping with society’s standards, something which has caused some to oppose these sites outright. However this critique is often overblown because it only focuses on the inappropriate and chooses to overlook the hundreds of thousands of perfectly acceptable and constructive video clips uploaded by youth users.
Sociologist Dr. Naif Al Faraj explains that the vulgarity found in some of the videos posted by Saudi youths can be traced back to what he calls “societal repression” and “venting youthful energies and feelings.” He explained that while some vloggers use sound and video to connect with others and provide them with their latest news and personal updates, others exploit this platform to challenge community standards by posting inappropriate footage under the protection of anonymity that the virtual world provides.