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Saudi filmmakers discuss opportunities, challenges
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 17 - 08 - 2015

Layan Damanhouri
Saudi Gazette

JEDDAH – The US Consulate in Jeddah recently hosted the second gathering of Friends of the Arts, a regular event exploring Saudi culture and arts.

The theme was "Saudi Filmmakers", where local filmmakers discussed the Saudi perspective on cinematography. A panel discussion and screenings of the participants' productions were shared with the audience.

Filmmaking has recently been revived in the Kingdom with the advent of social media and globalization.

The panelists were filmmakers Abdulrahman Sandokji, Rakan Aksoy, and Abdulrahman Khawj. The discussion was attended by other filmmakers, photographers and experts in arts and heritage.

Sandokji, passionate in Michael Moore style documentaries, engages in investigative stories. A production team comprising of him, his wife Maryam Hejazi and a small group of filmmakers, produced the two seasons of the series Wa Mahyaya on MBC and a hit film, “Phosphine,” among other works.

“Phosphine” aired on a major television network during prime time immediately went viral on YouTube, gaining more than 4.5 million views in less than a week. The film exposes the case of victims of a deadly poison called phosphine being illegally used in residential buildings.

For Sandokji, film is a tool to express a message or vision. He says, “If we can't solve the problem, we can at least have peoples' voices heard until it reaches decision makers”.

Rakan Aksoy is also a filmmaker specializing in documentaries and web-based media. He has worked on many international productions with National Geographic, Discovery Channel, Cosmic Pictures, and a British television project on the Haj.

Based in Sweden but frequently traveling to the Kingdom, Aksoy also produces films about local cultural subjects.

One of his short films, “The Shipmaker,” portrays a craftsman in Jeddah and the long tradition of ship building in the Hejaz.

Despite the absence of movie theaters, Rakan says that watching videos online, either on a phone or on a computer screen, is a unique experience and gains lots of viewers worldwide.

Abdulrahman Khawj is a writer, director and film editor who pursued a degree in filmmaking the United States. He has produced two short films abroad and recently returned to Saudi Arabia to work on a feature film.
“We lack the kinds of films that show the human stories of Saudis,” said Khawj.

“Unfortunately the image of Saudis and Muslims in the West has been negative in recent years. My goal is to present the real side of the average Saudi”.

However, many challenges lie for local filmmakers who wish to pursue cinematography as a fulltime job. Issues discussed were the shortage of academic institutions instructing film production, lack of movie theaters in the Kingdom, and technical obstacles in filmmaking.

While many of the cinematographers claim that filmmaking in Saudi Arabia is independently carried out by individual efforts due to the scarcity of film schools, most agree there is great talent all over the Kingdom.

Khawj says, “Filmmakers from Saudi Arabia have proved their ability to participate in film festivals and be in the lead”.

John Elliott, information officer at the US Consulate, said the consulate's Public Affairs Section was interested in promoting exchanges between Saudi and American culture.

The goal of the panel discussion, he said, was to explore Saudi cinematography, the differences between filmmaking in the US and Saudi Arabia, and its challenges and prospects.

Omar Faruk Aksoy, who is the father of panelist Rakan and was in the audience, said there has been a significant rise in the number of talented Saudi cinematographers today.

A photographer and cinematographer with more than 30 years of experience in the field, Aksoy Sr. worked on numerous documentaries including IMAX films on Haj, “Journey to Makkah,” and his most recent film on the Makkah Clock Tower.

He said documentary filmmaking is an opportunity to share with others stories from Saudi Arabia.

Elliott added that the panel discussion provided insights into the scope of Saudi filmmaking, its history and its achievements.

Commenting on the local cultural scene in the Kingdom, he enthused, “There is so much richness, and I'm also amazed by the fine quality of films being produced here."

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