Ithra Invites International Filmmakers to Partner With Saudi Talent, Elevate Global Industry

When Saudi Arabia opened the doors to cinemas across the kingdom in 2018 for the first time in decades, Ithra, also known as the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, released its first commissioned feature film, “Joud,” a documentary described as “an ancient poem for modern times.” 

Now, in 2023, Saudi Arabia’s film industry and leading film producer are looking to elevate modern cinema by collaborating with major film artisans from around the world.

Ithra returns to the annual film festival in Cannes for the third consecutive year in the Saudi Pavilion, with a proposal for international filmmakers: Partner with Saudi filmmakers to add a new perspective to the global film industry. Through its Ithra Film Productions (IFP) initiative, the center has launched an open call for film proposals, with a plan to commission at least one film every year and provide funding for as many as five.

“We invite international filmmakers to collaborate with filmmakers in the kingdom and join us on our journey to accelerate talent and sector development in Saudia Arabia,” says producer Majed Z. Samman, head of performing arts and cinema at Ithra.

Saudis are passionate about film, but cinemas were banned across the kingdom for decades. Before the ban was lifted in 2018, audiences either traveled outside the kingdom to watch films in neighboring countries, or stayed at home to watch them on TV via satellite or various social media platforms.

Ithra, which means “enrichment” in Arabic, opened in 2018 with a vision to accelerate the development of Saudi Arabia’s creative economy, incubating new Saudi film talents and giving them opportunities on a global scale.

It is only recently that public platforms for watching movies have become available in the kingdom, just in time for Ithra to build an exciting era of Saudi filmmaking. The nonprofit not only produces arthouse films, but also presents a program of film-centered events through the Ithra Film Society, which connects Saudi talents and filmmakers with world-renowned experts.

“By working with local crews, we hope to facilitate an organic process of knowledge transfer and cross-cultural exchange that will elevate the local industry and enrich the international film landscape through a novel exploration of unique stories and locations,” says Samman.

The production powerhouse is putting in place a domestic infrastructure needed to create prestigious projects that appeal to audiences at home and abroad.

“The world is hungry for authentic Saudi perspectives and based on Saudi Arabia’s unique cultural context,” says Samman. “We welcome international collaboration as we present a point of view that hasn’t been explored much.”

The film world has taken notice of Saudi Arabia’s booming film industry, spearheaded in part by initiatives like IFP. When a film is commissioned, IFP owns the intellectual property; when funded, IFP takes a more hands-off approach. “We give as much creative freedom as possible to the filmmakers,” explains Samman.

And Ithra is seeing results: Since “Joud,” 20 original films have been produced, and each has received local, regional and international awards. Productions have screened at 17 festivals around the world, and five have secured streaming deals.

Its latest project, Khalid Fahad’s feature film “Valley Road,” is set to be released in theaters July 6. For her leading role in the drama, singer and influencer Aseel Omran won the Golden Palm for best actress at the Saudi Film Festival in May.

“Working with Ithra is an experience you will never forget,” says Fahad. “You’re lucky if your first film is produced by them. They know how to produce.”

Samman explains that IFP’s plan is to commission more films like “Valley Road” (the first G-rated family film made in Saudi Arabia) and the upcoming drama “Hajjan” (by producer Mohamed Hefzy and director Abu Bakr Shawky). IFP will then bring these projects to international festivals as part of Ithra’s aim to engage with international audiences and encourage global collaborations and partnership with Saudi talent.

“We want international filmmakers, writers, producers, directors [and] composers to know we have different programs in Saudi Arabia,” says Samman. “There are so many stories to tell here, and we’re quickly learning how to tell them better in a visual medium,” he shares.

In the meantime, the kingdom has all the locations a film shoot could need, and studios are in the process of being built. Ithra, Samman says, is also looking to train Saudis to work as crew members.

That’s what happened with “Hajjan,” a film made with a largely multinational crew, including over a dozen Saudis. Egyptian screenwriter Omar Shama co-wrote the screenplay with Saudi writer Mufarrij Almajfel.

“We told everyone — even the actors on set — that we are making an international film with a Saudi flavor,” says Samman. He hopes that one day his country’s film industry creates “artistic and weird films that are good at the same time, like [‘Valley Road,’] and ones like ‘Hajjan’ — dramas with a Hollywood structure.”

For up-and-coming Saudi filmmakers, support from production companies like Ithra means access to powerful assets as their country’s film industry continues to expand.

“This is a new generation,” Fahad says. “[Saudis] are impressed by Hollywood’s movies. The first time I saw ‘The Lion King,’ I was like, ‘What is this?’ I would love to see that [look] on the faces of our children and [inspire] a new generation.”

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