The Esplanade’s VOX Cinema buzzed as crowds of international filmmakers, Saudi creators, and ambassadors alike joined together in the first-of-its-kind European Film Festival in Riyadh last night.
The festival kicked off with the screening of the French film “Perfumes” by Gregory Magne, preceding the screening of 13 other selected European films.
The event was planned and developed locally by Arabia Pictures in collaboration with the EU, the Saudi Film Commission, and supported by the Goethe Institute, Peugeot, Alliance Française, and EU-member state embassies including Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Italy, Spain and Sweden.
“Tonight we also celebrate friendship between Europe and Saudi Arabia. We are all extremely excited to witness the booming cultural scene of the Kingdom and the impressive push by the Vision 2030 to bring culture and entertainment to the largest part of the Saudi population,” said EU Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Patrick Simonnet in his opening remarks. “We are proud to contribute through our own events and initiatives.”
The festival’s goal is to bridge cultures, expose Saudi filmmakers and audiences to international creations, and create a global discourse. “Our industry is very new and just starting out, so we have a lot of areas that are a green field that we need to learn from,” Roua Almadani, CEO of Arabia Pictures, told Arabian Weekly. “For example, on-ground production, lighting, location design, or even simple techniques related to directing or producing.”
Abdullah Al-Eyaf, the CEO of the Saudi Film Commission, told Arabian Weekly: “I believe that having festivals like this is very important and is at the core of what we aspire to do at the Film Commission.
“It allows the audience to view different films than what’s commercially in the market. It gives a chance for European filmmakers, or others at different festivals, to meet with new audiences and hear from them and create spaces for dialogue and discussions. It also creates opportunities for distribution,” he said.
“A relationship that centers on cultural exchange and learning between the Kingdom and international regions could be beneficial to growing the young Saudi film industry. It’s an opportunity to bring in experts in film production, create training programs, internships, co-productions, and even learn from a financial management standpoint,” he added.
While the selection of films represent some of the finest in Europe, one can wonder how receptive a Saudi audience will be. “I believe that there will be a large acceptance for European films for one reason: The Saudi community is thirsty for art — they want to see it. They have a big curiosity for learning and seeing, so I think there will be a demand. Another thing is that it’s great to have something in cinemas that’s different from what they’re used to,” said Almadani.
American producer Todd Nims sees it as an opportunity for Saudi Arabia to develop its own identity as an industry. “There’s a lot to learn about (developing) a brand … in Europe you get that too, like French films. There could be that for Saudi … I think Saudi film has the potential to be really niche with this cool blend that’s commercial, but not in a bad way. It’s their own thing,” he told Arabian Weekly.
The filmmaker, like many others in the room, has just returned from attending the Saudi Film Festival in Dammam. Nims has been in the Kingdom for the past 15 years developing films and entertainment.
“This is kind of historical for me,” he added.
Filmmaker Omar Alomeirat, who also attended the Saudi Film Festival, noted the overwhelming change these sorts of festivals present. “It’s not just Saudi (anymore), it’s the world,” he told Arabian Weekly. “Seeing international films would give us another perspective and perception of how they see the world, and that gives us insight on how to picture our world here in Saudi.”
Saudi writer, actress, and director Sarah Taibah expressed her excitement about the diversity brought to Saudi film screens. “We always have access to Hollywood … but to me, European cinema has a totally different flavor,” she told Arabian Weekly.
Reactions to the first screening, Magne’s “Parfums,” were mixed, though. “There’s a lot to like about the movie, but as an opening movie, I don’t know. It could have been a lot better,” Saudi filmmaker Talha B. told Arabian Weekly.
His brother, fellow filmmaker Maan B., chimed in: “It’s good to watch foreign films. I’ve been watching a lot of Hollywood movies, so this is a refreshment … (The movie) was in a way beat by beat, but I enjoyed it. It was funny, it was relatable.”
The upcoming European film screenings will include “Little Joe” by Jessica Hausner, “Campeones” by Javier Fesser, “I am Greta” by Nathan Grossman, and many others.
“Next year we’re aiming for newer movies and a better program, but what I can say is that this year’s films are really great,” Almadani said.
The European Film Festival will be screening films through to June 22 at The Esplanade’s VOX Cinema.