Nader steps into the light of the crackling fire. Sitting around it, sporting the traditional red and white ghutra, the elders of an unnamed village in the Saudi desert watch the young teacher with wary eyes. A stranger from the city, he arrived wearing sunglasses and a shirt and trousers to teach the new government textbooks to the young boys of the village. As he sits by the fire to share in the meat and hospitality of the village elders, he has swapped his city clothes for a white thawb. But this is not enough to assuage the elders’ suspicion of the city and the associated norms of social change: the village doesn’t want electricity, development, or Nader’s new textbooks. Saudi writer and director Tawfik Alzaidi’s feature debut Norah (2023) is set in 1996 in a remote village in rural Saudi Arabia whose inhabitants must navigate the changing world around them. 

Over 20 years later, Saudi society is grappling with even more dramatic forces of social and cultural change, increasingly accelerated by the government’s drive to open up the kingdom’s economy and remake its international image. Since the rise to power of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2017, Saudi Arabia has introduced sweeping political, social, and economic changes. As some in the urban elite embrace the government-directed steps into internationalised modernity, other parts of the population find themselves unsure of the developments. Beyond the usual headlines of women driving and Saudi sporting clubs buying up international superstars lies a society between new and old, between nostalgia for a simpler past and hopes for a vibrant future, seemingly on the cusp of change and yet simultaneously already plunged headlong into a new world. Alzaidi’s titular character Norah, portrayed by 16-year-old Maria Bahrawi, embodies the tension between conservatism and the desire for change. She inhabits the inside world reserved for women, only venturing outside in a black abaya that covers her from head to toe. Yet her rebellious spirit is manifested in her collection of illicit music cassettes and censored magazines and her wish to have her portrait drawn. Nader (Yaqoub Alfarhan), who draws Norah’s little brother as a reward for coming top of the class in a spelling exam, harbours a repressed soul in a society where artistic expression is taboo. Norah and Nader’s encounter in the grocery shop where Norah reveals her eyes to Nader who sketches her from behind the shelves allows both characters to transgress, if only momentarily, the social norms constraining their respective dreams. Alzaidi portrays this with a tentativeness and subtlety reflecting the sensitivities of Saudi society that rings true.

Norah premiered at the Red Sea International Film Festival which took place in Jeddah. For ten days, Jeddah, the gateway to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, became the site for a different kind of pilgrim: a string of Hollywood stars and fledgling filmmakers passed through the glittering ballrooms of Jeddah’s seafront Ritz-Carlton, a palatial opulence that could not be further from Norah’s desert village. Now in its third edition, the Red Sea Film Festival showcases the latest developments of a film scene that has navigated the politics of a country that did not have public cinemas for over three decades. The festival both seeks to foster emerging Saudi talent and to bring local voices to the global stage. It unabashedly strives to promote the kingdom’s investment opportunities, seeking to put it on the map for international entertainment and film productions. The festival’s 17 competition features and 25 competition shorts were from Africa, Asia, and the Arab World, with a selection of global films from the international festival circuit to complement the program. Many of the competition films were supported by the Red Sea Fund, which provides financing for African and Arab films from development to production and through to post-production. This is all part of Saudi Arabia’s ambition to create an “ecosystem” in which to train local talent and create infrastructure for local and global film production, which was front and centre at the Red Sea Film Festival. From 2-5 December, the festival put on the Red Sea Souk. Established filmmakers and young writers and producers mingled with industry professionals, distributors, sales agents, and international journalists such as myself, in the hope of meeting the right person with the right resources to bring their ideas to life. Despite the chandeliers dripping from the ceiling and the marbled floors, there was an air of informality and buzzing animation. “As an emerging film scene, there is energy and it’s exciting,” said one attendee, “it’s like Hollywood in the ‘20s.” 

Inshallah A Boy

Like Norah, many of the festival’s films explored narratives of social change and stories of individuals, often women, navigating the tensions between conservative societies and changing social norms. In Jordanian filmmaker Amjad Al-Rasheed’s Inshallah A Boy (2023), Nawal, arrestingly played by Palestinian actress Mouna Hawa, faces the repercussions of her husband’s sudden death. A pious widow and mother, Nawal finds her life turned upside down as it becomes clear that Jordan’s legal and social conventions leave her and her daughter Nora (Seleena Rababah) with only half of her husband Adnan’s (Mohammad Suleiman) inheritance. The other half goes to his siblings since Adnan did not have a male heir. The slow but steady build-up of tension throughout the film sees Nawal’s brother-in-law Rifqi (Haitham Omari) slyly and unscrupulously make a claim for Nawal’s house – which she can’t prove she paid for since her husband failed to sign the contract – and even attempts to take custody of Nora. Nawal, who admits to feeling lost after Adnan’s death, is nevertheless determined to fight what she perceives as injustice, even when it tests her own moral and religious convictions. When Rifqi takes Nawal to court to settle his inheritance claim, Nawal tells the judge she is pregnant. God willing, it is a boy who would be entitled to Adnan’s full inheritance. To substantiate her claim, Nawal enters an unlikely alliance with the unhappily married daughter of the upper-class, Christian family she works for as a nurse. Lauren (Yumna Marwan) who is pregnant by her cheating husband takes a pregnancy test under Nawal’s name in exchange for Nawal accompanying her to an illegal abortion clinic. Both women, though strikingly different, face the same challenge of dealing with double standards, patriarchal constraints, and their own moral conflicts. Inshallah A Boy is an intimate family drama where the personal is political and there is no easy answer for how to navigate conflicting social values and personal convictions.

Two of the Red Sea Film Festival’s competition shorts, Smokey Eyes (Ali Ali 2023) and Me & Aydarous (Sara Balghonaim, 2022), also depict young women’s struggles to navigate the norms and constraints of their societies. Both films revolve around a date in a car, the unique space in socially conservative societies that is sufficiently private and sufficiently public to allow young couples to spend time together. However, the two films – and dates – could not be more different. Advertising director Ali Ali’s fiction film debut Smokey Eyes is set in 2013 Cairo and, much like post-revolution Egypt, the film has a tense and uneasy atmosphere with an underlying sense of imminent danger, the source of which is not immediately clear. Nour, played by first-time actress Malak Bazid, sneaks out of her parents’ house to go on a night-time drive with her boyfriend Figo, played by Egyptian rapper Marwan Moussa. As the two navigate the febrile, vibrant city, Nour’s transgression of her parents’ rules and Egypt’s social norms feels risky and dangerous. In contrast, Jude’s (Ida Alkusay) date in Sara Balghonaim’s Me & Aydarous has an air of light-hearted naivety. Set in 2005 Riyadh when social rules for young women were more restrictive than today, Jude sneaks out of her family villa to meet up with her boyfriend. Naive but courageous, she is intent on carving out a modicum of personal autonomy and agency with the zeal of an entitled young women intent on taking charge of her narrative. She is picked up by her driver Aydarous who is driving a van because, as he tells her, the Lexus is with her father. The film is almost entirely shot inside the van with which the two pick up Jude’s somewhat pathetic date. The actual interesting relationship, however, is between Jude and Aydarous who maintains a watchful eye on the young lovers. As Jude tries to find ways to get rid of Aydarous while wilfully ignoring her boyfriend’s attempts to break up with her, the chauffeur’s disapproval for the social transgression he has been coerced into is as apparent as his distaste for the young man’s bad manners. Dynamics of age, gender, and class pervade the complex relationship between Jude and Aydarous who acts as an enforcer of society’s disapproval while remaining a dutiful employee. Ultimately, though, there is a rapport of care between the driver and young woman. Balghonaim casts a light on the curiously intimate relationship between young women and their live-in chauffeurs who know every detail of their personal lives by virtue of being accomplices to their secret escapades. With light-hearted humour, the awkwardness of the chaperoned date portrays the tensions around personal autonomy, social conformity, and changing societal expectations in an accessible and playful way. Balghonaim’s short makes a pointed commentary on Saudi Arabia’s strict social norms, which have only recently started to change.

Me & Aydarous

Like its society, Saudi Arabia’s film scene has undergone rapid transformations. Cinema has long been a source of social anxiety in Saudi Arabia where the religious leaders’ Wahhabi doctrine prohibits depictions of humans. Saudi Arabia’s first cinemas were established in the 1930s to cater to the foreign employees of the California-Arabian Standard Oil Company, now ARAMCO. After an apparent increase in local officials attending the ARAMCO cinemas, the government ordered access be limited to non-Muslims in 1953.1 In 1965, Saudi Arabia introduced its first national television but soon restricted public screenings of movies amid a religious backlash. The various semi-public film venues that sprouted in the resulting legal grey zone were finally closed in response to a wave of religious conservatism that culminated in the 1979 seizure of the Grand Mosque of Mecca by a group of militant anti-monarchy Islamists. But even in the resulting cinema dearth, filmmaking in Saudi Arabia wasn’t dead. Ten years before the government lifted its cinema ban, the eastern city of Dammam on Saudi Arabia’s Gulf coast hosted the country’s first government-sponsored film festival in 2008. Officially called the Saudi Film Competition since festivals were not allowed, the event was mostly publicised by word of mouth and featured 54 films by Saudi and other Gulf and Arab filmmakers.2 Though generally well-received, media hype around talk of future festivals gave rise to a moral panic and Saudi’s filmmakers needed to wait until 2015 for the festival’s second edition.3 

In the meantime, Dubai had become the Gulf’s hub for cinema with the foundation of the Dubai International Film Festival in 2004. It screened the first feature film to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia Wadjda (Haifaa al-Mansour, 2012). While cinemas remained banned in Saudi Arabia, many Saudis would travel to the United Arab Emirates or Bahrain to watch films on the big screen. In 2018, however, the Dubai International Film Festival was postponed under mysterious circumstances and never resurrected.4 At the same time, Saudi Arabia was beginning to emerge on the Middle East’s cultural stage. In 2016, the government launched Vision 2030, a comprehensive plan to diversity the Saudi economy away from its dependence on oil and make the country into a global hub for business and investment. As part of the vision’s Quality of Life program launched in 2018, the government aims to develop the entertainment industries, including sports, arts, culture and entertainment, including music and cinema. 

In April 2018, Saudi Arabia’s first public cinema in over three decades opened in Riyadh. The following year, the government relaxed the country’s strict gender segregation rules allowing men and women to mix in cinemas. Since its first year, the Saudi box office has outstripped regional competitors like Egypt with its century-old tradition of cinema. It’s not all about watching films, though; Saudi Arabia also wants to make them. With otherworldly filming locations and state-of-the-art production facilities at Al-Ula and Neom, Saudi Arabia wants to put itself on the map for international producers, aided by a 40% cash rebate for projects filmed in the kingdom. 

Titanic, Suitable Version for Iranian Families

The Saudi government’s rapid liberalisation has been criticised by some as nation-branding to whitewash Saudi Arabia’s authoritarianism and poor human rights record. While the festival promised no censorship, screenings of films featuring “sensitive content” required the audiences’ phones to be stored in sealed pouches for the duration of the showing. Overt criticism of the Saudi government remained off limits, but the films offered subtle critique of constraining social norms and repressive government. In the Iranian short Titanic, Suitable Version for Iranian Families (Farnoosh Samadi, 2023), employees in the Islamic Republic of Iran’s censorship bureau debate what scenes need to be cut or redacted to meet the standards of the censors: no physical intimacy, no scenes with women smoking, dancing, walking up or down the stairs, no cleavage or bare arms. The irony is not lost on the censors who end up deciding that Jack kissing Rose’s forehead as the Titanic is sinking is more a sign of desperation than desire and can thus stay in the final cut. The short is a one-shot, one-frame film affording it an almost play-like quality as the characters move in and out of the camera’s view. Samadi shot the film in Iran in secret and her comments about censorship in her country are met by a knowing laugh from the Saudi audience. 

But while the Red Sea Film Festival clearly serves the government’s aims of reshaping its international image, the festival also offers real opportunities for Saudi creatives. “For years, we have just been dreaming of these things,” Saudi director Hana Al Omair told a panel in Jeddah, “we used to work with no budget at all.” The rapidity of change has left some reeling. Independent filmmaker Hayder Dawood left Saudi Arabia to pursue a master’s in engineering in Sweden. “I studied something totally different, and this is the case with all my generation. We didn’t study cinema or art,” he told me. “I didn’t know that Saudi would change drastically. And if I knew, I wouldn’t leave the country because there were a lot of opportunities. And the people who stayed are the ones who grasped those opportunities.” His short The Last Winter (Hayder Dawood, 2023) starts with a series of voice notes between the director and his friend reflecting on emigration, homesickness and the changes their home country has undergone. The two friends document their journey through Sweden’s winter to see the northern lights. Dawood says his film is experimental for Saudi Arabia. “As a newborn industry in cinema, you can really experiment, and you don’t feel anything.” Making films is a way for him to make a mark despite being away from home. “I would love to make something to contribute to the culture of this country.”

Outside the Vox cinema in the Red Sea Mall, where most of the festival’s films were screened, families were enjoying a regular evening out, a far cry from the glitz and glamour of the Ritz. Apart from the few foreigners wearing tell-tale festival badges, the festival seemed to go nearly unnoticed. In the food court, families ate together, and teenagers milled around shooting me curious looks. Apart from aspiring filmmakers and industry professionals, not many attendees had come from outside the region. During one of the Thursday evening screenings, a group of young Saudis came into the cinema chatting, ready to enjoy the weekend. To what extent the Red Sea Film Festival will actually change filmmaking in Saudi Arabia remains to be seen. Like many of Saudi Arabia’s megaprojects, there is a lot of rhetoric, but a viable film industry needs a depth of experience and technical know-how that can’t simply be manifested overnight. But one thing is sure: Saudi filmmakers, and creatives from the wider Middle East, have stories to tell and the Red Sea will remain a space to watch. 

Red Sea International Film Festival
30 November – 9 December 2023


  1. Ulrike Freitag, “Thinking of the City through Film and Cinema. Roll’em,Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication, (2022).
  2. Sam Milgrom, “Saudi Arabia Hosts First Film Festival,” Centre for American Progress, 15 August 2008.
  3. Becky Lucas, “How the Saudi Film Festival Played the Long Game to Success,” The Hollywood Reporter, 18 May 2023.
  4. Alex Ritman, “Dubai Film Festival 2018 Edition Officially Canceled,” The Hollywood Reporter, 18 April 2018.

About The Author

Miriam Aitken is a writer and researcher focusing on the Middle East and North Africa. She is an MPhil candidate at the University of Oxford and an enthusiast for Arab cinema. She is interested in the negotiation of future imaginaries and the collective memories of the past in societies in flux.

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