Last Sunday, while celebrities gathered in Los Angeles for the 87th annual Academy Awards, or Oscars, a five-day film festival was in full swing in the eastern city of Dammam in Saudi Arabia. The second-ever Saudi Film Festival, held from 20 to 24 February 2015, showcased Saudi Arabia’s emerging cinematic talent with the screening of 66 short films, no small feat in a country that bans cinemas.
Held at the Saudi Art and Culture Center in Dammam, the Saudi Film Festival drew daily crowds of around 1,500 eager spectators to its film screenings and daytime workshops in film score composition, directing and screenwriting. Prizes and grant money were awarded to winners in four categories: short narrative, documentary, student directed and original screenplay. In a strong show of support, more than 800 men and women, including celebrities from across the Arab World, packed a hall built for 600 during the award ceremony on the festival’s closing night. The top prize, the Golden Palm Tree, went to female director Hana Al-Omair for her film, “Complain” (Shikwah).
Despite the odds, a culture of filmmaking is slowly emerging in this deeply conservative country. At the vanguard of this movement are young artists like Mohammad Al Faraj, who, along with the majority of this year’s festival competitors, is under age 25. Al Faraj’s documentary “Lost” won first place in the student category at the Saudi Film Festival. His powerful short film shines light on a village of stateless people, known as bidoon in Arabic, living under abject conditions near the southern city of Abha, Saudi Arabia.
Al Faraj, a 21 year old student in applied mechanical engineering at KFUPM University, is one of a handful of Saudi artists using film as a tool for change. He hopes to bring his passion for storytelling and award money to bear on his next project, which will likely be another human rights themed documentary. This talented young filmmaker and photographer credits the Saudi Film Festival, and especially its director, Ahmed al-Mulla, with encouraging a new generation of cineastes and building a platform for Saudi cinema from which to grow and connect to society at large.