The theme of the 9th Saudi Film Festival hosted by Ithra this week is comedy. According to Ibrahim Al Khairallah, producer of hit Saudi comedy Sattar (2022), now showing at the festival: “Eight out of ten of the most popular Arab films are comedies.” That’s why he decided to make a comedy. “We’re just starting out so I’m doing it for financial reasons until we’re established. Then with time, we can start making more artsy films.” Al Khairallah spoke during an insightful panel hosted inside the Production Market of SFF, moderated by Cairo-based journalist and programmer Andrew Mohsen, and also featuring esteemed film critic and frequent MIME collaborator Jay Weissberg.
The Saudi family comedy Sattar, set in the world of freestyle wrestling, continues to break records at home and is now one of the five highest-grossing movies ever released in the country. This success follows the 35-year cinema ban that was lifted in 2017, demonstrating the potential for a vibrant local film scene in Saudi Arabia.
It was Ithra that paved the way for local Saudi filmmakers to start their own productions. “Ithra was the first entity to support Saudi filmmakers to produce their own films in the Kingdom,” explains Majed Z. Samman, Head of Cinema at Ithra. “Saudi Film Days started in 2016, before cinema was even allowed in Saudi Arabia and before the Ithra building was opened to the public. We were working on the ground to cultivate the Saudi film industry. Ithra was also the first cinema to open in the modern era before the ban was lifted so that Saudi filmmakers could showcase their talents.”
Comedy is widely considered to be one of the most difficult genres in cinema, you have to nail the timing, tone, and delivery to make people laugh. However, humor is subjective, so what one person finds funny, another may not. This makes it even more challenging to create a comedy that appeals to a broad audience. Can comedy be universal? Can you appeal to the masses? When done right, successful comedy films can be incredibly rewarding for both filmmakers and audiences. And it looks like Sattar has managed to achieve that. “In both our world premiere at the Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah, and our screening in London, we had huge laughs,” notes Ibrahim Al Hajjaj, the main actor. “It seems we were able to transcend national borders and cultures in terms of sense of humor.”
Two of six films produced by Ithra at the first round of Saudi Film Days (the production side of the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture - Ithra has been currently rebranded as Ithra Film Productions) were comedies: the first was Is Sumiyati going to Hell? (2016) as told through the perspective of the young Layan, about a maid named Sumiyati who has to navigate and survive a horrible job due to her racist employers. The second was Wasti (2016), a true story in which a play was stopped in Riyadh in 2006, when a group of extremists attacked the theater. Both films are available now on Netflix.
“Film critics don’t like comedies but if that’s what our audience wants, that’s what we are going to give them,” says Al Khairallah. It’s not surprising that Arab audiences favor comedies as a genre. Maybe it’s the political situation in neighboring countries, the lack of entertainment endemic to the region, or a way of coping with the difficult circumstances of daily life. Of course, comedy can be a powerful tool for social commentary and criticism. I’ve always believed in the importance of comedians in society to highlight, satirize and critique social norms, political issues, and cultural trends, as they provoke thought and spark important conversations in their wake. More importantly, it gives people the chance to laugh at themselves and take life a little less seriously.
A nation’s sense of humor is highly influenced by specific cultural references that many outsiders may struggle to understand. British audiences, for example, may value subtle, dry humor, while Arab audiences may prefer physical or slapstick comedy. However, the overall feeling and spirit can still be experienced. “Comedy has to be rooted and anchored in a particular culture to be able to stay authentic and reach wider audiences. “It has to stay true and relatable,” says Weissberg. “Sattar was able to do that by showing the culture of Saudi Arabia whilst portraying relatable characters that people can identify with.”
“We aspire to have the Saudi dialect be the defacto comic dialect in the Arab world,” adds Al Khairallah. Currently, Arab comedy is often characterized by the use of colloquial Egyptian. Wordplay, puns, and other linguistic references may be lost and may not translate well across different dialects – even in Arabic - but the Saudi Arabian dialect has the potential to be understood by a broader audience.
Even selling comedy films is difficult. “It requires courage to market a comedy film,” states Al Khairallah. “But we plan to film at least another three Saudi comedies!”
Ultimately, like sports, comedy brings people together and has the power to bridge cultural divides, create a more shared human experience and at the same time introduce new cultures to the rest of the world. Comedy can tell us a lot about a culture and society as it provides unique insights into the attitudes and values that are important to them. Ithra remains committed to supporting Saudi filmmakers who want to cross cultural boundaries and present Saudi culture to the world.
Read Jay Weissberg's review of Sattar exclusively on MIME.
Image courtesy of Ithra, used with permission.