The Saudi Academy of the Arabic Language will organize the closing ceremony of the “Arabic hackathon” on Saturday

The VOX cinema on the Esplanade caused a buzz as throngs of international filmmakers, Saudi creators and ambassadors gathered for the first European Film Festival of its kind in Riyadh last night.

The festival began with the screening of the French film “Parfums” by Gregory Magne, preceding the screening of 13 other selected European films.

The event was planned and locally developed by Arabia Pictures in collaboration with the EU, the Saudi Film Commission and supported by the Goethe Institute, Peugeot, the Alliance Française and the Embassies of EU Member States, including Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Italy, Spain and Sweden.

“Tonight we also celebrate the friendship between Europe and Saudi Arabia. We are all extremely excited to witness the Kingdom’s booming cultural scene and the impressive push of Vision 2030 to bring the culture and entertainment to the largest part of the Saudi population,” said EU Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Patrick Simonnet in his opening speech. “We are proud to contribute through our own events and initiatives.”

The aim of the festival is to bring cultures together, expose Saudi filmmakers and audiences to international creations and create a global discourse. “Our industry is very new and just getting started, so we have a lot of areas that are a green field that we need to learn from,” Roua Almadani, CEO of Arabia Pictures, told Arab News. “For example, field production, lighting, location design, or even simple techniques related to directing or production.”

Roua Almadani, CEO of Arabia Pictures. (Provided)

Abdullah Al-Eyaf, CEO of the Saudi Film Commission, told Arab News, “I think having festivals like this is very important and is at the heart of what we aspire to do at the Film Commission.

“This allows the public to see films that are different from those that are released on the market. It gives European filmmakers, or others in different festivals, a chance to meet new audiences and hear their opinions and create spaces for dialogue and discussion. It also creates distribution opportunities,” he said.

“A relationship centered on cultural exchange and learning between the Kingdom and international regions could be beneficial for the growth of the young Saudi film industry. This is an opportunity to bring in film production experts, create training programs, internships, co-productions and even learn from a financial management perspective,” he added.

Abdullah Al-Eyaf, CEO of the Saudi Film Commission. (Provided)

While the film selection is among the best in Europe, one wonders how receptive Saudi audiences will be. “I believe there will be a wide acceptance of European films for a reason: the Saudi community is hungry for art – they want to see it. They have a great curiosity to learn and see, so I think there will be another thing is it’s great to have something in theaters that’s different from what they’re used to,” Almadani said.

American producer Todd Nims sees this as an opportunity for Saudi Arabia to develop its own identity as an industry. “There’s a lot to learn about (the development of) a brand… in Europe, we understand that too, like French films. There could be that for Saudi… I think Saudi film has the potential to be really niche with this cool mix that is commercial, but not in a bad way. It’s their thing,” he told Arab News.

The filmmaker, like many others in the room, has just returned from the Saudi Film Festival in Dammam. Nims has been in the Kingdom for 15 years developing films and entertainment.

“It’s a bit historic for me,” he added.

Filmmaker Omar Alomeirat, who also attended the Saudi Film Festival, noted the sea change that these types of festivals present. “It’s not just Saudi Arabia anymore (anymore), it’s the world,” he told Arab News. “Seeing international films would give us another perspective and another perception of how they see the world, and it gives us insight into how to imagine our world here in Arabia.”

Saudi writer, actress and director Sarah Taibah expressed her enthusiasm for the diversity brought to Saudi cinema screens. “We still have access to Hollywood…but for me, European cinema has a totally different flavor,” she told Arab News.

Reactions to the first screening, “Parfums” by Magne, were mixed, however. “There’s a lot to like about the movie, but as an opener, I don’t know. It could have been much better,” Saudi filmmaker Talha B. told Arab News.

His brother, fellow filmmaker Maan B., chimed in: “It’s good to watch foreign films. I’ve watched a lot of Hollywood movies, so that’s a refresh… (The movie) was sort of beat by beat, but I enjoyed it. It was funny, it was relevant. »

Upcoming European film screenings will include Jessica Hausner’s ‘Little Joe’, Javier Fesser’s ‘Campeones’, Nathan Grossman’s ‘I am Greta’, and many more.

“Next year we’re aiming for newer films and a better schedule, but what I can say is that this year’s films are really great,” Almadani said.

The European Film Festival will screen films until June 22 at the VOX cinema on the Esplanade.