White sunlight bounces off our iconic Carlton hotel’s facade. Kawa is at the 72nd Cannes Film Festival, and we’re honored to be here. We are starstruck. We just spotted Jim Jarmusch, Chloë Sevigny and Miles Teller on the terrace. What better setup could one think of for a meeting between Sofyan, a major internet French film buff with 1.3 million subscribers on YouTube, and the Saudi film crew responsible for Zero Distance. The crew is composed of Abdulaziz Al Shelahi, a first-time feature film director joined with his producer : Jumana Zahid, a young, first-time Saudi filmmaker. This meeting is definitely something, especially if you consider the fact that cinemas reopened in 2018, after disappearing for over three decades…
As Sofyan arrives onto the terrace, and the meeting happens, we understand he’s never met Saudi filmmakers before. His YouTube account is wildly popular because it references a plethora of films, broken down into different thematic videos. They’re really fun: in one clip, he lists off the tropes of zombie film history as he recreates his own homemade zombie flick, alongside his friends.
Time to get to know a little more about the saudi film crew. Rapidly enough, we learn that Jumana Zahid’s first and only cinema experience was when she went to see Roll’em, by Abdulelah Al Qurashi. “It’s the first Saudi feature to be screened in Saudi cinemas. The crew that worked on the film deserve all the credit they get.But that’s it! I barely have any time to watch movies. Just enough to make them!” she explains, laughing.
As they chat, they’re joined by Abdulaziz Al Shelahi, who directed Zero Distance. He comes from Riyadh, the capital, and the film is his baby. A baby he is eager to tell us more about : ”Filming took us one month. But the team bonded over the making of this film in a powerful way. Each collaborator views it as their own piece of work. And I think that’s important : presenting a work that we feel is close to our understanding of things. A quality depiction”.
As he speaks, it appears that the landscape of Saudi cinema is a complex one. Abdulaziz grew up at a time where storing photographs of people was highly frowned upon by certain segments of society. There was even talk of them being burned. As a result, he only owns photos of himself from age eight onwards.
A Big Bang (in Reverse)
However, things are changing : some 2,500 screens are to open in the next five years, thanks to $35 billion worth of investment from within Saudi Arabia and abroad. As the Middle East’s largest economy, this boom is bound to affect the entire Arab world, positively.
As they speak, Sofyan points out an odd phenomenon : “It’s almost happening in reverse order,” he says, and it’s true: Saudi society had access to DVD and VHS long before opening up to cinema.
The recent addition of cinemas, and on-demand streaming services, are only just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the community’s taste : one which has long had access to movies from across the globe.
Jumana’s own experience is filled with memories from foreign productions itself : “My first memory when it comes to film, is of cable television. They were mostly Egyptian films. Cinema was—and still is—huge in Egypt. Later on, satellite TV came through with a wider variety of films, which included Hollywood. Also Bollywood! Then video stores allowed us to make our own collections, on VHS and DVD. We still have a huge collection at home.”
Still, Abdulaziz Al Shelahi can not shake the feeling that the choice of the right narrator has a strong impact on the message, and the way it is received : “Nobody can tell the stories the Saudi Arabia has to tell better than the Saudi people themselves. There will be more Saudi films in the Gulf, and I certainly hope to see more films at Cannes.