The Saudi Film Festival’s Visionary Founder Looks Forward

VERDICT: Over nine editions, the dream of a film festival in Saudi Arabia has become a reality.

Originally posted May 15, 2023

“A platform for love, knowledge, and creativity.” In a nutshell, that is how Ahmed Al Mulla, the Director of the Saudi Film Festival in Dammam, characterizes the festival he founded in 2008 and runs with Artistic Director Ahmed Alshayeb.

SFF is the first film festival in Saudi Arabia and its focus has always been on Saudi filmmakers. “It encourages, supports, finances, trains and develops filmmaking projects,” notes Al Mulla, who explains that the primary attention is on Saudi films and their makers – that is the priority.

The history of the Saudi Film Festival is very much the story of Ahmed Al Mulla himself, a man with a vision who made it become the vital reality it is today. When asked to share his initial concept of the festival and how he brought it to fruition, he simply replied: “Love is the motive; the means is learning cultural management and policies. I did not look forward to satisfying any party except the filmmakers.”

The 9th edition of the festival took place May 4 to 11, but it skipped several years in the beginning. “Before undertaking the first edition in 2008, which was accomplished miraculously,” he explains, “we started in 2005 with cinematic screenings open to the public for the first time in Saudi Arabia (at that time, public cinemas were not permitted). We went through difficulties as a result, until the festival returned in its second edition in 2015 with the symbolic slogan, “In the blink of an eye,” as if cinemas were fleeting, impossible dreams — until public cinemas were opened in 2018. Consequently, the festival adopted the slogan “Dreams Come True” in its fifth session in 2019. And here we are, with the recently established Cinema Association, the first non-profit and non-governmental association to organize the festival.”

A Saudi Focus

Although the focus is on Saudi productions, “selected international films are presented according to the theme of the festival in each of its editions, such as documentary cinema in the first edition, desert cinema in the seventh, poetic cinema in the eighth, and comedy cinema in the current ninth session, in which international films are selected, noting that films from Gulf countries are accepted directly.”

When asked whether he thinks SFF has played a significant role in modernizing the film and cultural scene in Saudi Arabia, Al Mulla was very affirmative. “By tracking the artistic level of local films and their rapidly escalating development from one edition to the next, as well as considering that the festival was the only gathering point for filmmaking enthusiasts and practitioners, where it still stands as the most important meeting and networking event for filmmakers, I think the festival’s role is clear. On the other hand, I think it has had an evident effect in keeping pace with new changes.”

Clearly the strategy has paid off. Attendance has risen from 1,500 viewers in 2008 to more than 16,000 in 2022. We asked Ahmed Al Mulla how the festival has worked to develop its audiences, and what exactly the audience is looking for in the festival.

“Of course, the festival is working on developing its tools from one session to another. This undertaking is augmented by the impact of the continuous partnership with the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, Ithra, since the second edition, as well as the support from the Film Authority since its establishment two years ago.”

He notes that “the young Saudi audience’s craving for cinema is on the rise, whether to watch or to participate. On the other hand, beginning with the sixth edition in 2020, which coincided with global Covid 19-quarantine measures, the festival has launched its online channel, broadcasting 24/7 throughout the festival and increasing viewers to more than 25 million. This channel continues with each edition, and its reach to followers is growing significantly. The audience is looking for materials that meet their interests and needs.”

This Year’s Festival

Though highly focused, the Saudi Film Festival is sprawling. Al Mulla is obviously proud of the festival’s dedicated section on film books, which this year highlights film comedy. The festival has published over 40 film books so far.

“The festival invests carefully in projects for cinematic knowledge, as the Arab world lacks a permanent body that feeds this vital sector. Therefore, we launched the Books Project from the first edition, with a specialized team working throughout the year. In this ninth edition, 17 books will be published and distributed (17,000 copies of translations from Italian, French, Spanish, and English, and books by Arabic authors from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries). During the festival, these books are distributed to the participants and those interested, with book signing scheduled for each release.

As for the section dedicated to unproduced screenplays, he reports that the festival received over 400 unproduced scripts for the competition. A selection committee narrowed them down to a long list, and a jury selected the winners – three in the feature film and three in the short film category. The winners are put in a script development lab followed by a month of online interactive sessions.

Before leaving Ahmed Al Mulla, we asked him what kind of relationship SFF has to other MENA region festivals like Cairo, Carthage, El Gouna and the newcomer Red Sea?

“The Saudi Film Festival extended its relations with many Arab and international film festivals and institutions, especially since it was the only institution in the beginning stage that possessed information and resources about Saudi cinema. We try as much as possible to benefit from all relevant festivals. Since the launch of the Red Sea International Film Festival, we have been in contact and cooperation. You will see them as one of our sponsors. They also organize one of their significant programs concurrently with our festival days, so that their participants meet with the participants of the Saudi Film Festival. We walk side by side with mutual respect, appreciation, and cooperation.”

Thank you, Mr. Al Mulla, and congratulations on the 9th edition! 

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