ISLAMABAD: For many aspiring filmmakers like Pakistan’s Ahsan Minhas, Saudi Arabia’s expansion into cinema was a distant thought until a few years ago. But in 2018, he witnessed the renaissance begin in the Kingdom with the screening of Hollywood flick ‘Black Panther,’ a first in over 35 years that relaunched the local market for films.
The move to reopen cinemas in the Kingdom was part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030, an ambitious plan to diversify the Saudi economy, outside of its core business of oil production, for economic growth and national development through more entertainment options.
Minhas, whose Arabic short film ‘Sukoon: Addiction of Silence’ was screened at the Saudi Film Festival last month, says he is a witness to the “revolution” in the Kingdom.
“I have seen this country (Saudi Arabia) being more closed in to now suddenly opening up to such scale as per its Vision 2030 which is the pride of this country,” he told Arab News over the phone this week.
“They have not been just investing in foreign projects, but they are taking themselves to a whole new level.”
Minhas has been living in the Kingdom with his family since he was eight years old. The 29-year-old, New York Film Academy qualified, wrote, produced and co-directed Sukoon with a Syrian filmmaker, Marwan Bakri.
The 32-minute fiction-drama, backed by a Riyadh-based production house Manthour Productions, revolves around a couple that experiences “all the doubts and heartbreak that exist, bringing in a violent, tragic and imaginary incident,” according to the synopsis of the short-film.
The film has won several awards for its story and screenplay at the Independent Short Awards and the Anatolian Awards in the United States and Turkiye, respectively. The short-film is also an official selection of the Hollywood Boulevard Film Festival in Los Angeles, slated for November this year.
Bakri, who co-directed Sukoon, shared that he focused on Hollywood-style filming to give the audience the change they were looking for.
“This film opened our eyes in the industry, how it works and what the future is about,” he told Arab News.
The Syrian filmmaker said working with people from different backgrounds added “creative depth” to the film and their collaboration with Minhas encouraged them to look forward to talent from Pakistan.
Asked about his plans for the screening of Sukoon in Pakistan, Minhas said he was “dreaming” of a platform where he could show his work to his home audience and hoping for the Pakistani film industry to be more “adaptive” toward the filmmakers’ vision.
“The art of filmmaking is not clearly accessible [in Pakistan],” he lamented. “I want to be able to know about the kind of a platform [like Red Sea and Ithra] where film festivals happen in Pakistan but it’s a dream right now.”
Minhas is currently working on a dark comedy both in English and Urdu languages, and intends to submit it for the Red Sea International Film Festival this year. His upcoming venture narrates the story of a Pakistani girl in Riyadh who goes through a midlife crisis.
“I’m planning a short film right now which is my passion project and will be submitting for Red Sea 2023,” he maintained. “Though the film is still on my laptop and I’m working on the music sequences now.”
About finding his way into the Saudi film industry being a non-native, the award-winning director said the industry was “accepting people who like to experiment with films,” with support from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund and its Neom initiative.
The Neom project offers funding to attract filmmakers to promote the domestic movie industry in the Kingdom. Its latest offerings included Johnny Depp’s ‘Jeanne du Barry’ and five other movies that made it to the latest edition of the Cannes Film Festival.
“The Saudi film industry is inching toward a balanced mix which is bringing people together, creating a diverse and inclusive space,” Minhas said.
He said Pakistani filmmakers could come up with ideas and pitch them under the Red Sea Labs program, which aims to help filmmakers, writers and industry professionals realize their vision and projects from “inception to production.”