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Film Studies Thrive in Saudi Arabia, Promising Jobs and Cultural Change

Ghaidaa bin Mahfoudh hopes to begin a master’s degree program in film production in the United States soon with the help of a grant from the Saudi Ministry of Culture. It’s a dream she’s able to pursue only after earning her bachelor’s degree last year from the School of Cinematic Arts at Effat University, in Jeddah.

“This would not have been possible if I had not first joined the university here,” bin Mahfoudh said from Jeddah. “My family totally rejected the idea of my studying cinema, because there were no job opportunities, and society did not accept women’s work in cinema,” she said. “However, I was determined to fulfill my dream and managed to convince them, especially with the presence of the school here.”

Her family is now encouraging her to complete her studies, she said.

Effat, a nonprofit women’s university, is the only university in Saudi Arabia that awards a bachelor’s degree in cinematic arts to women. That’s in addition to some workshops offered by the Dar al-Hekma University and Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University.

Effat University’s School of Cinematic Arts opened in 2013, and since then, more than 150 students have graduated from the Visual and Digital Productions Department. Some 60 female students are currently enrolled in the school’s film production and direction program, working toward a bachelor’s degree that’s awarded in collaboration with New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

“We are working on preparing cadres with international skills,” said Mohamed Ghazala, director of the School of Cinematic Arts in Jeddah. “We have developed the curricula according to the needs of the labor market with a degree from New York University, and our students have promising opportunities in an industry that begins its career with great government support.”

Economic and Social Transformations

The Effat school’s push to produce more trained film professionals coincides with moves to diversify the kingdom’s economy away from oil and liberalize its conservative society. (See a related article, “Crown Prince Pushes Change in Saudi Higher Education.”)

Rawan Jaha, a second-year student, photographs a classmate. Cultural changes under way in Saudi Arabia are opening up more opportunities for women in the arts  (Photo: School of Cinematic Arts).
Rawan Jaha, a second-year student, photographs a classmate. Cultural changes under way in Saudi Arabia are opening up more opportunities for women in the arts (Photo: School of Cinematic Arts).

The government’s move in 2018 to allow commercial movie theaters to reopen after a 35-year ban was one step in that plan. Other cultural elements include encouraging artistic and musical performances and other forms of entertainment, and increasing household spending on cultural and entertainment activities from 2.9 percent to 6 percent in 2030.

This shift is providing more opportunities for talented young Saudi women to emerge in the arts.

Most of those working in the film industry are young people under the age of 30, of whom 34 percent are women, according to a report recently issued by the British Council on filmmaking skills in Saudi Arabia. The report is based on survey responses from 422 people, including filmmakers, cast and crew members, students, training and education providers, and others.

“The demand for local talents and competencies will increase as a result of the increase in film and television production and the opening of cinemas, and this will open the way for the establishment of more film departments and institutes in Saudi universities,” said Ghazala.

He explained that the study of art “needs accumulating experiences, and students who study in their environment are more interactive, aware, and accommodating to the needs of the country and more able to truly express the local reality, while students who study abroad tend to judge their societies.”

Mahassine Al-Hachadi, a teacher of film direction at the School of Cinematic Arts, believes that the opportunity to study locally will be widely accepted and considered by many to be better than traveling abroad, especially for girls.

“Female students have a passion for studying cinema and joined the university with conviction and love. Our role is to make them professionals.”

Mahassine Al-Hachadi  
A teacher of film direction at the School of Cinematic Arts

“Female students have a passion for studying cinema and joined the university with conviction and love,” she said. “Our role is to make them professionals.”

Al-Hachadi said she had one student who had wanted to study abroad, but after she applied to Effat University, “she was impressed with the possibilities and hosted her parents here. It was her mother’s wish not to have to study abroad.”

Female students who study cinema right now are lucky, Al-Hachadi said, “because the field is new, the public is hungry for cinema, and there are many employment opportunities.”

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Amna Abu Redaif is a graduate of the first class of Effat University’s Bachelor of Sciences of Cinematic Arts program. She got a job opportunity in a production and advertising company upon graduating in 2017.

“My graduation from a cinematic school was the gateway to getting a quick job opportunity,” she said. “I moved across more than a company and progressed in jobs for two years, and currently I work as an assistant producer in a new  TV series.”

Abu Redaif does not deny that many families have reservations about their daughters studying art in general, but she seems optimistic that this will change.

“I feel the obstacles facing girls are removed, but the challenge is great in competition with workers in the field to prove their competencies,” she said. “Yet, the best can get the right opportunity.”

A Promising Job Market

Hana Alomair, a Saudi filmmaker and writer, says that expanding the establishment of cinemas, in addition to starting the implementation of feature films and series, requires large work teams and thus provides many job opportunities.

“The film sector has economic importance; it is linked economically to other sectors,” Alomair said. An increase in film production creates many new job opportunities, she said. “We suffer from the lack of enough professional workers in this field.”

“We suffer from the lack of enough professional workers in this field.”

Hana Alomair  
A Saudi filmmaker and writer

Fahd Al-Asta’, a Saudi film critic, believes that the lack of a local pool of professional talent necessary to develop the film industry is natural, as it is a new industry. “In the past, studying this art was not available locally,” he said. “Today opening the field for studying it locally will gradually solve this problem.”

Nevertheless, the kingdom’s film industry in faces many obstacles, chief among them the lack of funding. According to the British Council’s report, 43 percent of respondents said that lack of funding is one of the biggest obstacles, while 13 percent indicated a shortage of staff, and 11 percent indicated lack of access to training and film education.

Alomair noted that the film industry receives financial and artistic support from three government-backed institutions—the King Abdulaziz Center for World Cultures, a new Film Commission overseen by the Saudi Ministry of Culture, and the Red Sea Film Festival.

Still, “we aspire for more,” she said. “We are still talking about government support only and investors have not entered into real action in film industry.” She added that the increase in the number of cinemas should contribute to encouraging investment in this sector.

Al-Asta’ says that the continuation of government support is essential to ensure the continued establishment and development of this field.

“We need more official support and encouragement to establish this art in education and the labor market,” he said.

Meanwhile, young graduates of the School of Cinematic Arts at Effat University are moving ahead with their dreams.

Abu Redaif intends to open her own company, while bin Mahfoudh is awaiting admission to an American university to pursue her master’s degree. “The future of cinema in Saudi Arabia is full of hope,” she said. “I will get a master’s degree and return to work here.”


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