Dammam, Asharq Al-Awsat- ‘Cinema 500 km’ by Saudi director Abdullah Al Eyaf summarizes the story of the Saudi youth and the cinema industry known as the seventh art. Some people consider the symbolic distance referred to in the title optimistic.
The docufilm, ‘Cinema 500 Km’ is director Al Eyaf’s first production. It presents a daring concept of Saudi’s young population in love with the cinema. The film places a question mark over the non-existent cinemas in Saudi Arabia through the journey of a young man who loves films and is forced to leave the country that he loves in order to enjoy his first experience of watching a film in a cinema. What is interesting is that the young man has been a film enthusiast for years through videos and satellite channels, a fact that makes this experience a momentous one for him.
The movie was filmed in Riyadh, Khobar, and Bahrain. It was shown at the Emirates film competition in Abu Dhabi, at the Arab Film Festival in Paris, at the Arab Film Festival in Amsterdam, Holland, and during the Saudi Cultural Days in both Cairo and Alexandria in Egypt.
Al Eyaf has a vision of the development of the cinema industry in Saudi Arabia. In an interview with Asharq Al Awsat from Dammam, Al Eyaf talks about the cultural and artistic scene that influences and is influenced by the development of the seventh art in Saudi Arabia.
Q: How can a society with no cinema industry produce any creative directors?
A: There is no doubt that avid film goers crystallize the taste of the viewer to be more advanced in his artistic and cultural assessment of what he/she sees. With each good film, new creative methods are discovered in forming ideas and visions on the big screen by transforming them into sound and picture. What I did, together with some colleagues, was to read a great deal about cinema as history, industry, art, and culture. For years, we kept up-to-date with the news on cinema and masterworks. We watched thousands of films, including hundreds of documentaries, and specialized programs in the field of directing, editing, photography, and acting. Despite the scarcity of books on cinema in our libraries, the Internet was an unlimited source of the material that we wanted.
Q: How does a theoretical culture produce an industry?
A: A good film is an idea that is carefully formulated into the shape of picture and sound. One could say that the theoretical culture, the knowledge of what we want to say, and how we want to say it exists; however, we lack the basics and specialized techniques of the craft, and this is what I hope to learn in a professional manner rather than through amateur experiences.
Q: It is noticeable that the Saudi cinema experience, despite being limited, tends to lean towards the intellectual dimension of society, and is characterized by seriousness in presenting various issues about that element of society. Is this because cinema is still an elitist art?
A: A number of Saudis who are involved in the cinema industry consider cinema as an important – if not the most important – cultural tributary. On the basis of this conviction, and relying on their good standard of culture and diverse readings, those involved in the Saudi cinema industry seek to convey what they want to say through these films. Such productions are endowed with serious ideas and do not prevent them from trying to win over the audience and to balance the issues that they address in order to enable a larger number of viewers to deal with the suggestions of their films.
Q: But is cinema in Saudi elitist?
A: It is not completely true that cinema in Saudi is elitist, because cinema is primarily popular, but it can carry the visions and ideas of its producers. The fact that these films are more popular with the cultural and artistic elites is because the average viewer has not been able to see them properly; when these films were shown for the first time at the Jeddah Visual Show Festival last summer, I received many letters from those who saw the film expressing their admiration and commenting in a way that showed that they had understood the message of the film properly. There are numerous cinematic experiences that are not restricted to the well-known names only; however, the weak handling and the superficial issues have caused some of these experiences to fade away and viewers to turn their backs on them in disdain. This shows that the Saudi audiences are more aware than what some producers think.
Q: Many Saudis visit other countries to go to the cinema. How did this banned art become so in-demand?
A: The lack of cinemas in our country does not mean that there is complete ignorance of what is being shown. For years, Saudis have followed what is new in the world of cinema via video stores. The Saudis’ love of films is the main reason for Saudi Arabia being a target of some Arab films in other Arab countries. One famous producer told me, “We used to produce films for which was there no hope of success at the box office; what was important was the advertisements on the videotapes that targeted a Saudi audience, who would receive them eagerly!” In my film, there is a cinema manager in Bahrain saying that before the Saudi audience arrived ten years ago, the cinema theatres in Bahrain did not enjoy any significant success. As for why it has become more in-demand recently, it seems to me that the reason is the openness that has come about as a result of satellite channels that enabled everybody, especially the youth, to become acquainted with and attached to films. This took place, as I mentioned before, in the light of the social and cultural openness in the country.
Q: What have we lost through the absence of cinema?
A: The world will not be turned upside-down and opinions of film will not develop merely through the introduction of cinema. Bad films will continue to have their followers, and bad directors will continue to enjoy success. The presence of cinema in the neighboring countries has not changed the taste of the audience there. However, are we in need of a guarantee from anyone that the cinema will change the taste or the behavior of the people? When books regrettably ceased to have the same influence on our lives as Arabs, should we have listened to those who called, for instance, to stop books being published? In short, we lack an entertainment and cultural option of which we have been deprived for decades, and today we have the right to obtain it.
Q: What has brought about the Saudi interest in cinema after it has been overlooked for so long and why did you choose this field?
A: It is true that the Saudis have been quiet for a long time regarding the issue of cinema. Perhaps this was because of the intellectual and ideological changes that took place in society during the past decades or perhaps because society was preoccupied with more important issues, such as the two Gulf wars and terrorism. However, it seems to me that the Saudis have begun to consider the issues of cinema, literature, and music with more tolerance and with awareness and selective openness. This is because of the changes that have taken place throughout the world, and not only in our country. Moreover, the rise in the number of youths in our population makes their voice louder than that of their compatriots. Ask those who are responsible for the pay-per-view services provided by major television networks about the figures amongst the Saudi population; they will tell you it has the highest in the region. The video shops are full of people who keep up-to-date with the world of cinema. The sale of DVDs – whether legal or pirated – is very high in our country. The Saudi writers and critics are distinguished in the Arabic newspapers and the Internet according to some non-Saudis.
Q: What elements of the cinema industry exist in Saudi society?
A: There is fondness and strong passion. We have creative ideas, we have the audience that is the backbone of the industry, and we have a young generation whose writings we read in the newspapers and on the Internet that perhaps indicate the birth of specialized film critics. On the other hand, we lack the colleges and schools that specialize in all fields of the cinema industry – such as writing, directing, production, acting, photography, lighting, makeup, and others. Also we lack attentive production companies, and the non-profitable sides that support the film industry as a cultural project. Moreover, we lack the official support from the state, as we have no clubs for the cinema or cinema-lovers. Lastly, I almost forgot, we lack the cinemas themselves!
Q: What have you achieved from ‘Cinema 500 km,’ and where will you go from here?
A: I finished writing a script for a short film a few weeks ago entitled ‘Framework.’ It is about a young man trying to rescue himself from the clutches of brutal memories. I will start filming soon and I expect to complete it within a month. Also I have other ideas, one of which I have chosen to be a feature-length film, I will try to write it within the upcoming months, and I have high hopes for it. As for the docufilms, I would not rule them out if I have a distinguished idea and enough time.
Q: Your film along with three other Saudi films were received extremely well in the festival in France but were excluded from the Dubai festival. Is this related to language, or were the French celebrating the “novelty” of the emergence of Saudi works?
A: The Saudi films that were shown in France were part of a special movement entitled “Saudi Arabia – The Cinema of the Beginnings.” There were four films: two docufilms (Cinema 500 km and Nisaa bilaa Zil/Women Without Shadows) and two films, (Zilal al Samt/Shadows of Silence, and Kayf al Haal/How Are You). The films were not only celebrated by the French, as the two docufilms were praised at Arab festivals, and other Gulf and international competitions. There is no doubt that the admiration of the two films might have been mixed with some appreciation of the experiment and the difficulties endured at the beginning. There is a fear that this may overwhelm the assessment of the film itself. However, the discussions of both critics and audience that followed the viewing of the film at the Festival of the Three Continents in Nantes, France, showed that they were happy with the artistic level and the cinematic vision. As for the Dubai festival, unfortunately, I discovered that the film did not reach them because of a postal error, as it was sent to another festival in France! However, I do not claim that if it had reached the Dubai festival it would have had a great chance of success because there was strong competition, and the technical conditions might have prevented the acceptance of some films. The issue is much simpler than it seems: a film might be accepted in one festival and rejected at another. We have to take into consideration that every festival has its own conditions, controls, and criteria with regard to the length of the film, its nature, or the issue it discusses, and these conditions vary strongly from one festival to another.
Q: Why is the film Kaif al Haal considered a model for Saudi cinema, and why is it promoted as Saudi’s first feature film despite the existence of films before it?
A: It seems that as far as the producers of Kaif al Haal are concerned, the issue is primarily one of marketing. If we take into consideration that it is the first commercial film to be shown publicly at cinemas outside of Saudi Arabia, the film may be befitting of this description! The average viewer might ask, “Where are the other films that preceded Kaif al Haal?” The average viewer sees nothing but advertisements broadcast by channels such as Rotana and its ilk, while there are no efforts in advertising that are worthy of mention in other films.
Q: Do you believe that the term “first film” is insignificant?
A: To be honest, despite the fact that I appreciate the importance of this topic in the history of Saudi cinema, I do not like the conflict over the classification of “first Saudi film.” Do you know what the first American, French, or Italian films were? However, on the other hand, you do know what the best films in the world are. I bet that the Saudis themselves will eventually forget what the first Saudi film was, and will remember whether it was Kaif al Haal or Zilal al Samt or any other film that were good or not. I remember someone telling me about a funny comment that was published in a British newspaper, in which one critic said, “All the countries in the world launched the cinema industry by producing one film with the exception of Saudi Arabia that started it by making two films!” It is embarrassing that we are fighting over this nomenclature, while the rest of the world celebrates the passing of over a century since the beginning of cinema!
A: What does it mean for a film to be Saudi Arabian whilst everything except funding comes from abroad?
A: The identity of the film is one issue over which some people, even amongst the experts, might disagree. Some consider that the identity of the film is the same as the identity of its director, even if everyone else involved in the film is of another nationality. This is because the director is the owner of the final vision and shape in which the film will appear. Others consider that the identity of the film is determined by the production company, and is decided in the production contracts. For instance, the famous Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa, directed and participated in writing the film ‘Dersu Uzala,’ and the film won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1975; the film was not Japanese, but it was listed as a Soviet film, because the production company and the rest of the crew were from the Soviet Union. It is natural that the first Saudi films, especially those that are produced well, would have used a non-Saudi professional crew because of the lack of specialized institutions or such teams in the absence of an existing cinema industry. On the other hand, I am surprised by the exaggeration! Most of the crew of Kaif al Haal and Zilal al Samt, including the director and writer of the former, and most of the actors of the latter, were non-Saudis! Are there no directors, good script-writers, or actors in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia? I wish that the production companies would open their doors to the youth and their talent by establishing specialized workshops and competitions for the best stories and short films in order for these companies to become acquainted with talent that is closer to home, lower in cost, and more able to pronounce certain words than those whose mediocre work we have watched.
Q: Will Rotana’s support of Kaif al Haal motivate the financiers to sponsor other Saudi experiments?
A: Definitely. The Saudi market attracts domestic and foreign capital. The current and future experiments will increase the belief amongst investors that the Saudi audience is a primary target. It may surprise you to hear my belief that the European production companies within a few years will enter the competition through joint productions of good artistic and cultural standards that will be far-removed from the stars of slapstick humor and poor comedy. Our producers should beware and try to rectify the situation soon.
Q: Was it the funding that raised so much publicity and ultimately success for Kaif al Haal despite the reservations of some critics?
A: As a production company, you have to do everything you can to promote your film regardless of the level of criticism on the artistic level. Also, I appreciate that the production company would market the film through the satellite channels that it owns. Advertising is the primary method of reaching the public. As part of the production, I would also want the film to gain [attention], even before I see it. The commercial success of Kaif al Haal will consolidate the chances of establishing a film industry in our country, and will pave the way for producing other films that will avoid the mistakes that occurred. I know that those who made Kaif al Haal tried their best; however, I would like to draw their attention to an important issue, namely that the Saudi audience – the majority of whom are youths – is not an easy audience; do your best to challenge the Saudi viewer, and you will be surprised by his skillfulness in appreciating a good film.