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“We’re going to be one of the biggest markets for film,” says Saudi producer Aymen Khoja

CANNES: Saudi Arabia’s fledgling film industry is already making waves on the world stage. While Egypt is still the undisputed center of regional cinema, the Kingdom’s goal is ultimately to compete for that title – and more.

“We have the stories, and the foundations that we have are very solid: the culture, the talent, the theaters – it’s all there,” award-winning Saudi producer and director Aymen Khoja told Arab News during this year’s Cannes Film Festival. year. “Once everything is lined up, we’re going to go far.”

Khoja studied at the New York Film Academy in Los Angeles and worked in the film industry for over a decade, directing films for MBC Studios, VIU, Amazon Prime and many others.

Its mission, he says, is to bring authentic local stories to life on an international scale.

Aymen with Saudi Film Commission CEO Abdullah Al-Ayaf at Cannes 2022, Saudi Pavilion. (Provided)

He has already had some success in this regard, as producer of Hamzah Jamjoom’s ‘Rupture’, a psychological thriller with an international cast that won Best Saudi Film at the inaugural Red Sea Film Festival l ‘last year.

“Our culture and traditions are different from any other region, even from other neighboring countries. We have a lot of diversity and I think people are curious, Egyptians, my friends, Moroccans and the world want to know more about us,” Khoja told Arab News in Cannes last month, shortly after participated in the March Du Film Conference. discuss the state of Arab cinema. “It’s been 70 years, 80 years, and nobody knew anything about us. (foreign filmmakers) told stories about us, but we never talked. Today we are talking and I think it is very exciting.

With industry support coming from Saudi Vision 2030, Saudi Film Commission, Red Sea Film Festival and Ithra, among others, many Saudi talents have begun to pursue their ambitions of sharing Saudi culture on the big screen. . And Khoja is optimistic about their prospects.

Aymen with star Billy Zane while filming Rupture in Romania, November 24, 2020. (Supplied)

“We’re going to be one of the biggest film markets in the world, maybe the top three. I think we’re going to be there,” he said. “There are over 400 million people in the Arab region – we can get them to watch our (films).”

Khoja started his own production company in hopes of fostering the growth of the Kingdom’s film industry.

“I appreciate all the companies I’ve worked with in the past and learned a lot, but after ‘Rupture’ won the award I decided it was time.

There is a gap in Saudi cinema – especially films produced in Saudi Arabia – and I am here to fill that gap. I want my company to be the pride of Saudi cinema in the future, focusing on the quality of Saudi content,” he said.

Khoja explained that he hopes to produce only one or two feature films a year with his company, focusing on quality rather than quantity. He added that a common criticism of Saudi content is that it lacks the quality of Egypt or Hollywood, especially when it comes to performance.

Aymen Khoja during filming in Los Angeles. (Provided)

“I’m afraid that the public won’t have confidence in Saudi films if we continue to make low-quality films. That’s the big challenge for us today,” he said. “I want to m ensure that from now on, our Saudi content will become 100% better. In a few years, we want to compete with Egyptians and Americans.

“Looking at the market today, directors have incredible talent. But when they arrive on a film set, they don’t know how to find solutions, they don’t know how to talk to actors,” he continues. little coaching on how to handle it, they can do much better.”

At the moment, when the industry is still so young in the Kingdom, audiences are eager to come out and support local films just because they are local, Khoja said. And that could quickly become a problem, he believes.

“As a Saudi filmmaker, I appreciate the support, but I want Saudis to come see a film because the film is great and they want to enjoy it. Not because they want to support Saudi films,” said Khoja said.

He believes the genuine support of the Saudi public is crucial for the success of the local industry. To achieve this, however, filmmakers and producers need to focus on creating high-quality productions, rather than just producing movies.

Filming the 2016 film ‘Waheed’ in California – (left to right) Aymen Khoja, cinematographer Dani Lopez, Shane Fransworth. (Provided)

“There is no reason why a Saudi film should not be better than an Egyptian or American film. Storytelling is the most important thing and we have amazing stories. We just have to master how we tell them,” he said.

“Patience is also very important. I’ve seen a lot of filmmakers quit (too) easily because they couldn’t get the funds or support.

Khoja is currently working on two films himself. The first is a romantic comedy – “Bil Halal” – which is very personal to him, as it tells the story of a Colombian woman marrying a Saudi from a conservative family. This, he explained, is the story of his own marriage. It will be shot in Colombia and Saudi Arabia with an Arabic, English and Spanish script. He hopes to start production before the end of the year.

His conservative upbringing not only made his romance with his wife tricky, it also meant he had to struggle to convince them that becoming a filmmaker was a viable career choice.

“It was a very long and difficult journey to convince them and find a way to pursue my dream,” he said. “But if you believe in it and feel very passionate about it, I think you can do it. Nothing should stop you, at the end of the day.

He did, however, have a word of warning for budding filmmakers who believe making movies is their path to riches.

“If you want to be rich, advertise. Don’t make movies,” he said. “Maybe open a cafe – it will make you rich faster.”

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