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Third annual festival kicks off in Dammam
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 25 - 03 - 2016

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Layan Damanhouri
THE annual Saudi Film Festival's third edition was launched Thursday evening with 70 productions in the competition. The festival offers filmmakers a chance to present their works and exchange views with others. The festival, hosted by the Saudi Arabian Society of Culture and Arts of Dammam, is a non-profit cultural event that promotes local filmmakers and will run until Monday.
Despite the absence of public cinemas in the Kingdom, local filmmakers with both experience abroad and amateur expertise are emerging with an increasing number of productions on the rise.
Rakan Al-Harbi, director and actor of Raana ala Quloobihim (Their Strained Hearts), is participating for the first time in the competition with his short film on terrorist bombings in mosques based on recent events in the Kingdom. "I want to win and secondly, I want to send a message to the people who believe that young people making films are wasting their time," said Al-Harbi. "We have important messages to send through the media, which is becoming a universal medium of expression."
The four-minute film tells the story of a museum for "terrorists" — where a visitor engages in a conversation with the attacker of a mosque.
All the submitted films revolve around themes including social topics, war, health issues, love, psychological matters and much more.
"We need government organizations as well as media organizations to support the local talent here," added Al-Harbi, whose work mainly lies in television production.
At the opening ceremony, the head of the film festival Ahmed Almulla announced that over 112 candidates are participating with 70 films nominated for the awards. Of these, 24 are Saudi women filmmakers and 45 of the films will be first timers in an audience expected to reach 1,500. Organizers hope the event will help develop the country's nascent film industry.
"We try to raise the standards, to make it better," AlMulla said. Chairman of the board of the Association of Arts and Culture Sultan Albazeiyi said that the association is overcoming challenges and welcomes creative people who think outside the box "who continuously impress us with their high quality work and unlimited passion".
Despite the difficult journey, he added, the film festival would not have been possible without leading figures believing in the Saudi youth. Mohammed Salman, director of ‘Yellow', a short film documentary on taxi drivers, says: "Saudi cinema is on the rise with the increasing number of filmmakers out there. The film festival received an exceeding number of candidates this year."
"The festival plays a big role in awareness about the importance of filmmaking and culture of cinema. It's a healthy environment for filmmakers to express themselves and explore other productions as well as for the audience that is thirsty for Saudi cinema," he said.
Mohammed is participating in the film festival for the second time after previous works including ‘Qari' that received a golden award at the Los Angeles Storytelling Festival recently.
He further said: "So far there's no support from a government body or official entity; all the productions are made by passionate filmmakers with their own efforts. Although I think hosting a film festival on a regular basis promotes filmmaking in Saudi Arabia in the right direction and includes significant figures in the regional industry. It motivates filmmakers to compete and develop innovative productions."
However, formal education in filmmaking is limited in Saudi Arabia. Most filmmakers agree that the shortage in academies is a major obstacle.
"One of the main challenges is the lacki of an academy or formal education for filmmakers," says Faisal Alharbi, director of a short film called National Dialogue that addresses the social dilemma of loneliness among men and women. "I chose to study radio & television because it's the closest thing I could find but it's not the same as studying cinema and filmmaking. It's also considered a bit outdated."
His film tackles the issue of the rise of spinsters in society due to lack of communication and dialogue between both genders.
Only one university in Saudi Arabia, located in Jeddah, offers undergraduate degree in filmmaking but only for women. A couple of other newly introduced institutes offer courses in filmmaking.
YouTube has become an outlet – often the only one – for many filmmakers whether at a beginner or professional level in their skills. However, Al-Harbi said, the targeted audience is not always found on YouTube whose audience mainly consists of youth between the ages of 14 and 24.
Director Faisal Alharbi further added: "Films on YouTube are not the same as cinema. It's like comparing a quick tasty meal at a burger joint and going to a French restaurant for a dining experience."
Cinema is important, he said, where promoting and funding filmmakers is needed.
Participants at the only film festival in the Kingdom came from diverse regions, including Dammam, Hail, Makkah, Madinah, Riyadh, Sakaka, Al-Ahsa, Jubail, Qatif, with the highest number — 20 films — from Jeddah.
Saudi films have also been shown in major international festivals and in 2013 Haifaa Al-Mansour's "Wadjda" became the Kingdom's first film to be listed as a candidate for a foreign-language Oscar. It told the story of a rebellious girl who dreams of owning a bicycle.

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