The Internet Offers Saudi Filmmakers a Key Alternative Distribution Method

Courtesy of Deirdre Durkan

Prior to Saudi Arabia's recent lift on its long-standing ban on cinemas, a new wave of driven local directors turned to platforms like YouTube to share their work.

Amid a recently lifted 35-year ban on commercial theaters in their country, Saudi Arabian filmmakers found alternative ways to share their work on sites with large audiences. 

Filmmakers in the country, which has more YouTube users per capita in the world, have used the video platform as a way to showcase their visual narratives without commercial theaters, said a group of Saudi Arabian and American panelists Tuesday night during a discussion titled "Modern Storytelling in Saudi Arabia." The panel took place during the Saudi Art Days, a three-day event put on by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that is meant to introduce Los Angeles to the burgeoning Saudi entertainment industry.

Abdulrahaman Sundkaji, who was among the panelists Tuesday night, attested to his own success using the video-sharing website by revealing that his documentary on Alzheimer’s disease garnered 4 million views in less than four days.

“I get inspired by real stories, by real emotions and real problems. I like to make the viewer live or feel the exact things that are happening — like Michael Moore-style, investigative documentaries,” said Sundkaji.

After the lifting of its longtime ban on theaters, The Emoji Movie became the first film to screen publicly in the Middle Eastern kingdom. AMC announced Wednesday that it's opening the nation's first movie theater April 18.

Like Sundkaji, American screenwriter Shauna Cross, best known for Whip It, gathers her inspiration from real-world experiences.  

"It's amazing how things can be hyper-specific, but we all have families, we all have people in our families we can't stand, we all have people we love, and we all fall in love. All that stuff is so universal," Cross said.

When asked about facing challenges, panelist Mohammed Al Basheer said, "Working in art and culture is profoundly political ...You always try to push the boundaries with metaphors and symbols."

This marked the second night of the Saudi Art Days, which is aimed at allowing "the public to immerse themselves in the visual arts and culture of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia." Taking place at the Academy's Linwood Dunn Theater in Hollywood, the event coincides with crown prince Mohammed bin Salman's visit to Los Angeles, a stop on his three-week tour of the U.S.

The event, which is presented in association with the Saudi Films Festival, also features the screening of 13 modern Saudi films and an art exhibit under via the Kingdom of Colors. The gallery includes traditional photography and immersive video art, which guests put headphones on to hear the corresponding audio.

Outside the theater, a reception welcomed attendees with traditional Saudi Arabian appetizers and juices made from ingredients like chia seeds, maple syrup and strawberries. The drinks, which were garnished with edible flowers, were named after iconic films like Casablanca and Singing in the Rain.