As Saudi Arabia opens its first public movie theater in 35 years, producer Mohammed Al Turki looks back on becoming a cinephile during the ban and his rapid rise in Hollywood.
“As a child, I always wondered why we didn’t have movie theaters in Saudi Arabia. We connected it with censorship, but I never had a clear answer. For someone who loves film, this was sad, and I always looked forward to our annual summer trips overseas. Before the internet, whenever we visited London, my mother, who is one of the biggest supporters of my passion for film, would buy us markers and entertainment magazines so we could circle the movies we wanted to watch. Going to a movie theater became a grand experience, and if there were 15 new movies that summer, I would watch them all. It was also abroad that we would visit Tower Records or Virgin Megastores to buy all our films for the year. When traveling, we would carry an empty bag for box sets of our favorite TV shows and DVDs.
Thankfully, this didn’t stop us from watching movies in Arabia. We lived in the Eastern province, where Saudi Aramco – the biggest oil company in the world – was based. Inside its facilities was one movie theater where we could watch a movie once a week. Since my parents were big movie buffs, we could also just cross a bridge to reach Bahrain from the Khobar area, where we lived, where movie theaters were not banned. I grew up like anyone else, and watched everything, from all the Disney blockbusters to John Wayne classics.
While other kids collected comic books or sports memorabilia, my room resembled a movie store. Without exaggeration, I owned more than a thousand DVDs and VHSs. When my parents stopped giving me money to buy more movies, I rented tapes to my colleagues and neighbors so I could continue to expand my collection.
The first time I did something in film was during a summer course. My assignment was to shoot a small music video. I enjoyed being behind the camera and all the creativity involved in creating something for an audience. This experience triggered a desire to do things on an even bigger scale – although I never thought it could be possible. How could I succeed in the industry when there wasn’t even one official movie theater in my country? My parents were also concerned that I would have no job opportunities.
After that summer, my passion for film grew and my taste started to gravitate towards powerful stories, like the ones told by the Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar. European cinema, which is less glamorous than big Hollywood productions, engaged me with its real-life stories.
I was still hesitant when I went to college in London, so I decided to study media communications, with a double major in film. It was an incredible experience and I loved researching and doing papers on the works of legends like Federico Fellini and Fritz Lang. Nevertheless, once I graduated, I took a job in Saudi. I worked at an oil and gas service company, in the communications department. We developed the branding of the company, but after one year, I knew my heart wasn’t in it.
During that period, I was introduced to British director Zeina Durra through mutual friends. I discovered her interesting and intriguing character and realized instantly that she was talented. Since we got along so well, she showed me a script of The Imperialists Are Still Alive!. It was the story of an Arab woman living in New York City after 9/11. I fell in love with it immediately. The protaganist became paranoid and felt that people in the West where targeting her even though she had nothing to do with the attacks. I, along with other modern Middle Easterners that I know, related to the story. We could feel a certain guilt in the air, especially when the media was portraying the Arab world so badly.
It wasn’t an easy decision, but I decided to take the challenge and produce the movie. We had a small budget and we shot in New York, in only 20 days. French actor Élodie Bouchez was the star. Once we finished the movie, we didn’t know what to do with it. I was only 23 but the beauty of this industry is that you learn everything on the job. We started to market the film and submit it to festivals. It was an enormous honor to have The Imperialists Are Still Alive! compete at Sundance in 2010 and go on to win awards at the Warsaw and San Francisco International Asian American festivals.
With my second movie, Arbitrage (2012), it was entirely different. I worked with bigger actors, like Susan Sarandon and Richard Gere. Sharing a set with these incredible stars for more than a month and traveling together on press tours were incredible experiences. It was only when the film was released and started to receive critical acclaim, that I realized what I had done. It was a surreal experience – I had a real job in film.
Besides being a box-office success, Arbitrage allowed me to form great relationships, especially with Richard, who I grew up watching in movies such as American Gigolo and Pretty Woman. He is an incredible soul and taught me that the bigger the actor, the humbler he is. Richard was also supportive of my Middle Eastern background and was touched by the fact that there were no cinemas in my country.
When Abu Dhabi launched its film festival, Arbitrage was selected for the big opening night, due to my Arab roots. I was proud to have Richard by my side, while I was wearing national dress. In my speech I mentioned that while it had always been my dream to make an impression in Hollywood, to bring Hollywood home was a dream come true. When I started working in film, I was not taken seriously. At home, the older generation considered it an inappropriate profession, and in general, people thought I was just having fun. After Abu Dhabi, I garnered a lot of coverage in the Middle Eastern press and people realized that it was a serious job. In parallel, other Saudi filmmakers were blossoming, like Haifaa AlMansour.
I’m happy and emotional that Saudi is opening public cinemas. I never thought I would witness the day when I could sit in a movie theater in my home country. With around 2 000 new theaters all over Saudi opening their doors, the stage is set for the biggest film market in the Middle East, offering huge opportunities for filmmakers and actors who will give birth to a whole new industry. A Nina Simone lyric comes to mind, ‘It’s a new day, it’s a new life.’”
As told to Manuel Arnaut in the Vogue Arabia, May 2018 issue.