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GoCritic! - Animateka 2023

Industry Report: Produce - Co-Produce...

GoCritic! Industry: Saudi-European film collaborations

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Saudi Arabia has recently started getting into financing European animated shorts, two of which were shown at this year's Animateka

GoCritic! Industry: Saudi-European film collaborations
Telsche by Sophie Colfe and Ala Nunu

From 30 November to 3 December, the Animateka International Animated Film Festival coincided with the Red Sea Film Festival in Saudi Arabia, and whilst Ljubljana's Kinodvor cinema might be a far cry from Jeddah's Hayy Jameel Arts Centre, collaboration between the Saudi Arabian and European film industries is taking some adventurous steps.

Two films presented in Animateka's impressive Best of the World section, Naranda Land by Alimo and Telsche by Sophie Colfe and Ala Nunu, are Polish-Saudi collaborations. The two projects were partially funded by The King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, also known as Ithra, based in Dhahran, east of Saudi Arabia. But Saudi Arabia isn’t just credited as the “country of production” for these two intriguing stories: both films also involve elements indicative of cultural exchange. The filmmakers' original and rich philosophical thoughts are complemented by Arabic-influenced anecdotes (poems, prose, or landscapes), and the visual interpretation of this interaction is animated effectively in both films.

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The Red Sea Festival line-up, meanwhile, included six projects which combined Saudi Arabian financing with production coming from different European countries. The most familiar example was Maïwenn's Cannes 2023 opening film Jeanne du Barry [+see also:
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, starring Johnny Depp. Amongst the most interesting titles was a short animation called Saleeg, by Afnan Bawyan, co-produced by Saudi Arabia and the Netherlands. Filmed and animated in Amsterdam's 5 A.M. Studios and funded by the Saudi Film Commission, the movie offers up an ultra-local Saudi component – Jeddah’s speciality dish Saleeg – while the city's ethnic diversity is recognisable to international audiences.

Naranda Land, Telsche and other similar projects are examples of the growing collaboration between the Saudi Arabian and European film industries, where the funding entity doesn’t necessarily impact the uniqueness of the filmmaker’s storyline but instead enriches the way in which it’s expressed, allowing artists greater and more versatile creative freedom. Saleeg, for its part, is an example of a project spearheaded by different local narratives, drawing on its funders' resources and expertise.

Saudi Arabia is now looking to expand its presence in the world of animation and comics through further collaborations. Since 2019, it has taken significant steps to open up its ultra-conservative society, which is a massive reform given the attempts of the country's decades-old monarchy to consolidate its vision for the country's future. Reforms have included amendments to civil, criminal, and finance laws, which regulated many aspects of everyday life, controlling art, women's participation in society, freedom of travel and interaction with foreigners.

Human rights organisations have nonetheless criticised the Kingdom's cultural expansion over the past five years, raising concerns over whether these glamorous artistic steps are actually attempts to whitewash the country’s poor human rights record. It’s a concern which should be raised in all countries around the world, but engaging with the state shouldn’t be the same as engaging with people and their art.

When it comes to the international film industry, since 2019 Saudi Arabia has invested thousands of euros in big productions in Europe and Hollywood which bear no relation to the Kingdom. Whilst this might be a fair, business-oriented rationale for big producers, Saudi definitely has more to offer, namely a burgeoning local film industry and a society abundant in stories and anecdotes; in other words, a goldmine for cinema. Saudi Arabia has produced nine to eleven films over the past five years. Three or four of these were serious filmmaking attempts which enjoyed critical and commercial success, and which have ultimately created an industry composed of local producers, scriptwriters, cinematographers and film critics.

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