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Life Style: ‘We are going to be one of the biggest film markets,’ Saudi producer Aymen Khoja says

CANNES: Saudi Arabia’s nascent film industry is already making waves on the global scene. While Egypt is still the undisputed center of regional cinema, the Kingdom’s aim is ultimately to compete for that title — and more.

“We have the stories, and the foundation that we have is very strong: The culture, the talent, the theaters — everything is there,” award-winning Saudi film producer and director Aymen Khoja told Arab News at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. “Once everything is aligned, we are going to go far.”

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

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

Aymen with CEO of Saudi Film Commission Abdullah Al-Ayaf in Cannes 2022, Saudi Pavilion. (Supplied)

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

“Our culture and our traditions are different from any other region, even 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 about us,” Khoja told Arab News at Cannes last month, shortly after he took part in the March Du Film Conference discussing the state of Arabian cinema. “It’s been 70 years, 80 years, and no one knew anything about us. (Foreign filmmakers) have been telling stories about us, but we never spoke. Today we are speaking and I think that’s very exciting.”

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

Aymen with the star Billy Zane during filming Rupture in Romania, Nov. 24, 2020. (Supplied)

“We are going to be one of the biggest film markets in the world, maybe top three. I think we’re going to be there,” he said. “There are more than 400 million people in the Arab region — we can have them watching our (movies).”

Khoja has launched his own production company in the hope of promoting the growth of the Kingdom’s film industry.

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

There is a gap in Saudi cinema — specifically in Saudi-produced films — 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 just one or two features 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, particularly when it comes to performance.

Aymen Khoja during filming in Los Angeles. (Supplied)

“I fear that the audience will not have confidence in Saudi films if we keep making low-quality films. That’s the big challenge for us today,” he said. “I want to make sure that from now on our Saudi content becomes 100 percent better. Within a few years, we want to compete with the Egyptians and Americans.

“Looking at the market today, directors have amazing talent. But when they walk onto a film set they don’t know how to find solutions, they don’t know how to talk to actors,” he continued. “With a little bit of coaching on how to manage it, they can do way better.”

At the moment, while the industry is still so young in the Kingdom, audiences are eager to come out and support local movies simply 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 and watch a film because the film is great and they want to enjoy it. Not because they want to support Saudi films,” said Khoja.

He believes authentic support from Saudi audiences is crucial to the success of the local industry. To achieve that, however, filmmakers and producers must focus on creating high-quality productions, rather than simply churning films out.

Shooting the 2016 film “Waheed” in California – (from left) Aymen Khoja, cinematographer Dani Lopez, Shane Fransworth. (Supplied)

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

“Patience is very important too. I’ve seen a lot of filmmakers quit (too) easily because they were not able to get the funds or the support.”

Khoja is currently working on two movies himself. The first is a rom-com — “Bil Halal” — which is very personal to him, as it tells the story of a Colombian woman marrying a Saudi man from a conservative family. This, he explained, is the story of his own marriage. It will be filmed in both Columbia and Saudi Arabia with an Arabic, English and Spanish script. He hopes to begin production before the end of the year.

His conservative upbringing didn’t just make 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 tough journey to convince them and find a way to chase my dream,” he said. “But if you believe in it and feel very passionate, I think you can make it. Nothing should stop you, at the end of the day.”

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

“If you want to be rich, make commercials. Don’t make films,” he said. “Maybe open up a coffee shop — that will make you rich faster.”

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