In the shadow of reality
The first Saudi Arabian feature movie - a surreal offering from Abdulla al-Mohaysin that was screened at Cannes - was filmed in Syria.
In "Shadows of Silence," the first Saudi feature film, producer and director Abdulla al-Mohaysin focuses on the imprisonment and brainwashing of scientists in a fortress resembling a research institute. The scientists and workers at the "institute" are under constant supervision and scrutiny; even their dreams are recorded and reality is mixed with fantasy. It is so surreal that in one scene, one of the scientists' wives drives her car through the desert where she meets a Bedouin sheikh and his children, who then help her plot to save her husband from the institute. The Bedouin sheikh, in a courageous move, enlists the support of a group of daring horsemen to burst into the place and free the prisoners.
What gives away the fact that al-Mohaysin's film does not actually take place in Saudi Arabia? The women driving the cars. This could not have happened in Saudi Arabia. Women there can merely dream about being allowed to drive. But perhaps the director intended to hint at this. The movie was instead filmed in Syria.
This is not the only hint in the film, screened this year at the Cannes festival commercial movie market. The movie's title, "Shadows of Silence," hints of its connection with a kingdom not marked by freedom of speech and whose explicit name cannot be mentioned, least of all by someone who hopes to develop the Saudi film industry that has been in a state of virtual death for the past 30 years.
The film therefore presents a two-fold problem. On the one hand, it presents a Saudi version of George Orwell's "1984" and on the other hand, a saccharine romance in which valiant Bedouin cavaliers free people from this spiritual prison. The Arab public, well-versed in modern cinema, is no longer willing to buy such scenes.
The 59-year-old al-Mohaysin has already directed four documentary films. After completing his studies in England, he set up the first film studio in Saudi Arabia, at a time when it still had movie houses (before they were closed in 1977.) Some 400 men and women actors, extras and staff participated in the production of his last film which brought the Saudi film industry to life again and even received words of welcome from King Abdullah.