For Saudi Arabia, a coming-out party at Cannes

Ahmad Al-Mezyed
The Associated Press

CANNES, France (AP) — Saudi Arabia came to the world’s largest film market to declare its newly launched film industry “open for business, but largely avoided questions about gender equality.

Saudi Arabia established its first pavilion at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, signaling its debut on the international movie stage. The desert kingdom recently lifted a 35-year ban on cinemas, opening the country of 33 million — 70 percent of which is under 30 — to both theaters and film productions.

On Friday, the country’s new national film organization, the Saudi Film Council, announced a 35-percent rebate on films shot in Saudi Arabia and a 50-percent rebate for studios that use local talent, as a means to entice international productions to the Middle Eastern nation.

Speaking to reporters, Ahmad Al-Mezyed, chief executive of the General Culture Authority, said it was “a call to come shoot in Saudi.”

“Once supported, we (will) leapfrog a lot of the regions around us to become a dominant player in the industry,” said Al-Mezyed. “We’re welcoming the world to Saudi.”

Asked repeatedly by reporters about women in the new Saudi film business, Al-Mezyed said guidelines based on “what’s acceptable in the society” will be announced in the coming weeks on matters like women’s dress on film sets. But Al-Mezyed also noted that Saudi Arabia — where women will first be allowed to drive in June — is changing. He said the country’s initial moviemaking training program is half women.

“Probably 70 percent of the questions are about women,” sighed Al-Mezyed, responding to a question about the freedom of female filmmakers. “A lot of the ideas that people have are pre-2015, what Saudi used to be, because it’s embedded within the media.”

Freedom, he said, already exists. He noted the success of director Haifaa Al-Mansour, whose 2013 film “Wadja” was nominated for the Academy Award for best foreign language film. The first production backed by the Saudi Film Council will be Al-Mansour’s “The Perfect Candidate,” about a Saudi female doctor who runs for office.

Saudi Arabia is planning to establish a national grant program for Saudi filmmakers, scholarships for film students for studying abroad and to build domestic film academies of its own. It’s all a part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s efforts to transform the ultraconservative Saudi society.

The opening up of Saudi Arabia to the movies is seen as a potential oil rush for a Hollywood with few new markets to tap. Saudi officials last month opened the country’s first new movie theater (“Black Panther” was the first film shown) and expect to eventually have 2,000 screens throughout Saudi Arabia. The U.S. National Association of Theatre Owners has said Saudi Arabia could be a $1 billion market within a few years.

“This is the tip of the iceberg,” said Al-Mezyed, who added: “The object is to empower Saudis to tell their own stories.”

Al-Mezyed declined to comment on any government censorship that the budding film industry, or international imports from Hollywood, will be subject to.

This year, there are nine short films from Saudi Arabia playing in Cannes.

“We are participating in Cannes for the first time,” said Al-Mezyed. “Definitely not the last time.”

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Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP

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