Sunday, March 22, 2015

"We don't all have long beards": How film can change Saudi Arabia

filmmaker Mohammed Salman Al-Khobar Saudi Arabia blog

Mohammed Salman is a Saudi filmmaker who is responsible for the short film competition at the Saudi Film Festival and is the director behind Epouvantail, which he will be registering at the Cannes Short Film Corner. His short film tells the story of a family and how they wait for angels to come and bless their farm, so that it can become what it once was. To encourage the angels' blessings, the family puts men's clothing on the scarecrows of the farm. After learning of Mohammed's work from a fellow Qatifi, I requested Mohammed for an interview and we sat down for coffee one afternoon.
What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
Inspired me? I don't know exactly what is it when I was young. My father worked in Aramco, in the theater. He was the man who operated the film and changed the reel. I thought for the first time, what is this place? You know I come from a small village and I saw on that big screen, wow! It was long ago, I loved this place. And I got shocked how my father knew everything about film, the actors and the story. I thought he was the director! When I got back home, I thought, what happens now? Where did all those people go? I got an idea inside my head that I wanted to be a director. I didn't tell anybody because nobody knows about the cinema. There was no cinema in Saudi Arabia at that time. I tried to travel to the US but I didn't make it. So I studied fine art. But all my life I practiced and worked at film, as a musician and artist. When I grew up, I tried to realize real cinema. I realized what was real cinema. Not all movies that we see are art forms. There is commercial art.
So you think there's a difference between commercial art and real art. Do you believe that films can be both, such as Gravity?
Yeah I mean that film was a masterpiece, it won an Oscar.
But some people argue that they only hand those awards out to films that are famous, that aren't real art.
No no no no. Even in Hollywood there are masterpieces. They make more than 10,000 films per year. They make commercial films, but there are masterpieces among them.
Yeah I don't think that you can easily separate those two categories. A lot of films fall into both. 

What is it like to be a filmmaker in Saudi Arabia?
He hesitates.
I understand that this can be a touchy question.
It's positive?
Yes, I'm in Saudi Arabia, I can tell a story from my own village, my own life. That story nobody knows about. Nobody knows about my culture, there's a hidden story and culture that nobody knows about. I can tell a unique and different story.
You said that nobody knows about it. But people from Saudi know about it. 
Even the Saudis don't know about it! People from Riyadh don't know about it.
So would you say your audience is universal or is it only people that are from places like Riyadh and...
No no no it's universal. It's not specifically for local people. It's meant to be global.
So you want to teach people what it's like here or...?
No I'd say it's transferred culture.

Is it difficult to film here?
No. I know the rules. But I did get in trouble a couple of times because people caused it.
People complained or something?
Yeah. And people hate to see cameras around.

Is your full time job being a filmmaker and director?
No no, I'm an arts teacher.
Where do you teach?
What would you say the state of film making is in Saudi? Is it strong or still growing?
It's growing. There are many directors. They really have a sense and a responsibility to be directors. I believe that without Saudi there is no cinema in the Gulf area.
Yeah because when you go to any festival in the Gulf there are Saudis. They believe that Saudi is a big country with a big population of 20 million or above. When they open the cinema the income comes from the Saudis... Growing cinema comes from Saudi.
Because they have the money to fund the cinema.
Yes, the income. There is cinema in the Emirates, Bahrain and Kuwait, but there is no... It started in Dubai in 2008, when they started making features. It's not real. OK the films that they make go to festivals, but why make a film about the Gulf region and nobody sees it? The cinema and the theatre in Saudi can grow up. Investors will come.
Do you think that there will be cinemas and theatres that will be public in the kingdom?
Yes I do believe in that. Because of money.
Yeah I guess they're missing out on a lot of money that they could be making.
And we started! You heard about the Saudi Film Festival?
I'm involved in it and everybody's talking about it in places like Riyadh: Wow, there's something that we can copy.

I've watched your films on Vimeo and YouTube and you're right, they do show what village life is like in Qatif. I noticed that there was a reoccurring theme of children and particularly of this one boy. Is there a reason why you chose to focus on children and on this boy?
Well he just came along on the shoot. I was shooting a short film with his uncle and suddenly I saw in one scene and I saw his face in the camera and he inspired me. He is beautiful and great without much direction.
He's very natural.
Yes he is! And I told him that he would be in my next film.

Let's return to the Saudi film festival. Why did you become involved?
I don't know, because I'm too close with Ahmed Almullah, who is the manager of the festival. And I have experience because three years ago I tried to show some films in Qatif. I was in a film's group and we started making an event, a gathering of film directors. I brought short films from Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi and I started to screen it in Qatif and people were shocked.
Is this when you went to jail?
No no. I had a paper.
So they let you screen them?
No it's not like that. I know what the rules are.

What do you hope to achieve in this film festival? What do you hope to accomplish by being involved? 
The main support of filmmakers is screenings. I want to make films so that people can watch my film. That's the point. That's why film festivals should be... Basic instinct? We have to make them. Without them there is no cinema. The main goal of filmmakers is the festival. The festival should be in Saudi. We need the public, we need the people. Because the story in this film is about the people from the same country.
Without the festival these people wouldn't see the films. 
Yeah for me I made a film and nobody's seen it for three years. All my films. But in a festival anyone can see my films.
So what do you see in the future for the festival? Do you see it becoming larger...?
Yes, I see it becoming larger because we'll be supported by Aramco, it's a big program with Ithra. Next year I see it becoming big.

So did you make your film Epouvantail thinking that you would be showing it in Cannes?
Honestly? Yes. Because I named it Epouvantail. I gave it a French name!
What does that mean, √©pouvantail?
In English, um... Scarecrow.

Is the story in the film an original story?
Yes. The screenwriter is Zainab Rawiya. I was in a photography workshop in Qatif, I go to farms and take pictures of people. I discovered a few years ago that there are people living on farms that don't know anything about the outside world. They have been working there for 50 years. And I saw this √©pouvantail and I thought they were so beautiful, let's make a film about it. Then Zainab wrote a story so close to this place - her father is also a farmer. And I was in touch with this story and I worked with her on the development, maybe three months and it came out.
It's so homegrown. It's really Saudi. There's a Saudi screenwriter and director...
And all the crew are my friends, they don't know anything about film making, they just wanted to be involved.
Yeah well I would want to be too! Especially if you're doing it for a reason, so that people outside know what this place is like. I mean it's not your typical image of sand dunes and camels...
Yeah that's not my culture, I can't talk about it.
It's like you said, this country has over 20 million people and there are so many different areas and cultures within this kingdom. There are both urban and rural stories and those in between.

What advice do you have for future Saudi filmmakers?
Don't stop filming. Don't stop. You just have to film.

What is the first thing you think of when you think of change in Saudi Arabia?
I believe that we have to change thought and films change how you think. I want to transfer my culture to other people and show the real culture and the real humanity in my story. We don't all have long beards here. We are different.
So you believe that because Saudis aren't just a stereotype, that they aren't stuck in this box that there can be change.
Yes we're not stuck in this box. Even the government will understand now, there are outside forces. Let's talk honestly. Some groups in Saudi do support ISIS. We have to believe that. We have to fight them with art.
You can't fight them with bullets. 
Art is the only way to fight these people. The innocent people here, when you talk to them about Islam they don't believe that you kill people. We have to share the true vision of Islam, so that people will come to your side.
But many religious conservatives believe that things like filming are bad and they won't even see a film in the first place. How will you get them to watch? How do you convince them to watch this?
Normal people don't believe this. When you go to Bahrain, you see so many Saudis there. People will change. These men are in the minority. The're not even 20% of the population. If Saudis want to be on the map, we have to make films, without them we are not on the map.
I'm going to play devil's advocate here. What about everything else that Saudi does? The technology or the...
There's no technology in Saudi Arabia. There's nothing in Saudi Arabia. There's nothing original here, because when you go to let's say... I went to the US last summer and I met ordinary people in the street. They asked me where I was from and when I said Saudi, they didn't know anything about us. I do believe that cinema... If my films go to the US and are shown to the public, they will know that there is a country named Saudi Arabia. There are humans there. It's not just an oil rich country.
You're humanizing the national story. 
Even if people know about Saudi, they say that we are rich, we are an oil country. They still have this image in their mind. We have to change it.
When you say "we," do you feel like all Saudis have a responsibility to change this image?
Yes, yes.
If you're not a filmmaker how do you change this image?
You can be a watcher, you can go and see and to read. You have to take your religion inside your heart and don't talk about it. Be a human. That's the main point, I do believe. That's what my father told me when I was young and I'd watch these films in the cinema. My father told me you are a Muslim, you are a Shia, it's in your heart, it's between you and God. But when you're out, we are all equal. If you're American, Egyptian, Christian... And things do change. Look at Aramco 20 years ago. I used to go there in the mid-1980s. I saw the life there. Why did it change? Because people change.
Is your father still alive?
Yes he's still alive.
He must be proud of what you've done!
Sometimes. He laughs. 
I guess not when you get in trouble. 

Mohammed has strong opinions about what Saudi is and where it can go and the role that cinema plays in this change. Like Khalid Albaih, Mohammed believes that to fight terrorism, you need art and not more violence. If you want change in your country and in the world, you are responsible for doing so. While Khalid uses his pen, Mohammed uses his camera. 

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