One of the greatest thrills for me as a teacher is to follow up with former students — and I love it when they’re making waves. Change-makers are busy, so I was grateful for the opportunity to sit down with Mohammed Obaidullah earlier this year to talk about cinema & film education in Saudi Arabia.
Mo studied with me at VFS and went on to work in the film industry in Canada. As a personal side project, he produced a popular online film education series in Arabic that garnered thousands of subscribers. He has since moved back to the capital city of Riyadh where he’s now the Director of Compliance and Control for Cinema and Audiovisual Media in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia — and he’s playing a key role in the resurgence of their national cinema industry.
What’s happening in Saudi Arabia is more than a big deal in the world of film — it’s a cinematic movement. With a 35 billion dollar injection for the first phase of construction of hundreds of new theatres, Saudi Arabia is now poised to do what Hollywood has done so well — build an audience.
There have been pivotal times in the world of cinema that forever changed the global cultural fabric of film — and we are at the beginning of one these historic moments. The Saudi national cinema scene was small before it was stifled by authorities in the 1980’s. But now, with the recent lifting of the long-standing cinema ban, the new wave happening in the Arabian peninsula feels more like the first swells of a tsunami: a #SaudiCineTsunami.
The first part of the Saudi film plan is to build theatres, thousands of them, and then expand their creative industries with Saudi talent, new facilities, and schools. I’m hopeful that my new book will energize these young filmmakers who can now light up the screens in a country where cinemas have been dark for decades.
A March 2019 Variety article lays out some of the initiatives, including the first Saudi Arabia International Film Festival slated for 2020 and Vox Cinemas plan to open more than 100 screens this year. In keeping with the grandeur of the Kingdom, state-of-the-art multiplexes will offer gourmet dining amenities in feature locations, including Riyadh’s majestic Kingdom Center. Take a look at their impressive promo video.
Developments in film education are also exciting. Like the women-only cinematic arts program which is pushing the boundaries for female filmmakers, bringing new eyes — and stories — to the screens of Saudi cinemas and beyond. It’s the first time that I’ve heard of an all-female film program, and I hope this ground-breaking idea catches on.
Leading film schools — such as La Femis and USC — have helped Saudi film talent with workshops and training courses, putting a focus on storytelling skills as well as technical disciplines. The door is now open for a new generation of 21st century filmmakers to make a difference. The world is watching!
The comprehensive plan for the overall future of Saudi Arabia, known as Vision 2030, depends on the creative ambitions and entrepreneurial spirit of the younger generation, and everything is in place for the film industry and cinema education programs to thrive in a sustainable socioeconomic structure. This is a long-term blueprint designed to breathe new life into a national cinema that has been dormant for too long.
Truly an exciting time, and a highlight in the world of film and art. Not just for Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, but for the entire world.