"I think our stories have never been told": ROAA Media Ventures Chairman Redha Alhaidar talks cinema & film fund in Cannes

As Alhaidar was in Cannes to announce the Kingdom’s first film investment fund, we caught up with the businessman and cinema lover at the always abuzz Saudi Pavilion.
"I think our stories have never been told": ROAA Media Ventures Chairman Redha Alhaidar talks cinema & film fund in Cannes

It may have been raining outside, but even the rain did not stop Redha Alhaidar from meeting The Film Verdict ME at the Saudi Pavilion in Cannes. With an overextended festival going on along the Croisette, the Saudi cinema hub in the International Village seemed always crowded, filled with people making deals to amplify cinema in the Region.

Among those industry insiders, perhaps the metaphorical loudest voice belonged to a soft spoken, elegant man with a kind smile but also exuding an air of self-confident success. Alhaidar is that voice, the businessman who is the Chairman of ROAA Media Ventures, "a pioneering holding company at the forefront of Saudi Arabia's rapidly evolving media and entertainment industry," as their online description goes.

When it comes to development in Saudi Arabia, everything points to HRH Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud's 'Vision 2030' -- the Kingdom's vision for a sustainable, successful future which will extend beyond its borders while also remaining true to the country's pillars of culture, religion and humanity. "We intend to provide better opportunities for partnerships with the private sector through the three pillars: our position as the heart of the Arab and Islamic worlds, our leading investment capabilities, and our strategic geographical position," reads part of the Leadership Message by HRH the Crown Prince.

During a press conference on Thursday morning in Cannes, Alhaidar announced that ROAA Media Ventures had entered into an agreement in principle with the Saudi Cultural Development Fund and MEFIC Capital to establish a groundbreaking Film Investment Fund for the Kingdom. TFV Middle East covered the announcement here but I also wanted to catch up with Alhaidar for an insider's view into the ideas and ideals that shaped the decision, as the $100 Million Fund is the first of its kind for the Kingdom.

What did Alhaidar hope to achieve with this announcement and the fund? "It's the local narrative -- there are plenty of stories from Saudi which have never been heard," he admitted, even though "we've heard stories from all over the place globally, from Korea, from the U.S. from Europe and I think our stories have never been told." What is exciting about this fund, he said "is to enable Saudi storytellers to tell their stories, which I think are very genuine, very authentic and have a different flavor which will appeal to a varied audience." In the past ten years, even before the reopening of cinemas in Saudi Arabia, filmmakers from the Kingdom have definitely told stories through their films that have caught on with international viewers. Stories like Haifaa al-Mansour's 2012 Wadjda and her 2019 The Perfect Candidate, both of which premiered at the Venice Film Festival, as well as Mahmoud Sabbagh's 2016 Saudi romcom Barakah Meets Barakah, which premiered at the Berlinale and enjoyed popular success, in the Region and around the world.

"I think this fund could bring the Saudi industry to a new level and that is what's exciting about it," confessed Alhaidar, who holds two Masters degrees, one from Georgetown and the other from Harvard. That new level also needs to plan for a kind of illogical refusal of the Saudi art form, as this writer experienced personally during a panel inside the Saudi Pavilion titled 'Filming in Saudi'. At one point, a European guest of the pavilion argued that he had not watched any Saudi cinema and therefore the medium, in his own words, "does not exist." It's a convenient argument against a country that is moving at dizzying speed to create an industry, where in the rest of the world the same change took more than a century.

"I sort of sympathize with that man," Alhaidar told me without judgment, "because he comes from an international audience, he's never seen Saudi movies, he's never been exposed to the right distribution channels -- maybe because of the lack of the resources that allow us to convey our stories." But Alhaidar can foresee, in the next few years, changing that gentleman's opinion, "once more content gets pumped into the streamers and gets to an international audience, as well as having some major regional success stories." We agreed that the mystery man made a valid point, although perhaps, we also both agreed, "a bit on the extreme side," as Alhaidar observed.

When asked if he believes there is a need for more professional film criticism when Saudi movies actually make it to cinemas, Alhaidar conceded that "the film industry started globally more than a hundred years ago. In Saudi, I would say the official industry is probably two or three years old -- so I think we have a long way to go to build the infrastructure and this is part of the challenges that we are facing, there are gaps in the infrastructure that we have." Alhaidar also believes that streamers have opened up the market for regional cinema and content and that will continue to evolve. "I view cinema as a social event," he said, "I go with my kids, my family, but mostly I prefer the streamers and it's only when I take my kids that I go to the movies."

Ever present as an ideal for this writer, I asked Alhaidar if he thinks cinema is a means to bridge cultures. "No doubt about that. I think cinema is a way to communicate and sometimes it's much more powerful than direct communication. So it is important to invest in this visual literacy and whether it's cinema, or series, or digital content, it is imperative to convey your messages and share your values with the audiences at large."

So what will be the kind of ideal projects that could receive the funding just announced? "We are looking for authentic stories, we are looking for something that shares our values, that's what we are looking for." To understand more deeply Alhaidar's passion for cinema, I asked about his own favorites, growing up. Back to the Future is the first film the Riyadh-based businessman remembered watching but also admitted to enjoying "a diversity of productions, whether it's from the U.S. or Europe, more on the drama side, mysteries and suspense" over action flicks and romcoms.

One last bit of wisdom about the burgeoning industry coming up in Saudi Arabia, I beg of Alhaidar: "We are very ambitious, we want things to happen quickly but I think it's gonna happen."

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