“Can I go out?” The question reverberates across households - not really exclusive to the Middle East, but certainly an experience that we who live in the region shudder to remember. 'We' putting a special emphasis on, of course, women. And then the inevitable, mind-numbing response: no. But what is that experience like for Saudi girls, before they were allowed to drive, tethered to their “guardians” for any and all kinds of approval needed to go about their day-to-day lives?
That, along with many, many other Saudi - and Middle East - specific experiences, comprises the subjects of Meshal Al Jaser’s films. The 24-year-old Saudi director took the Arab world by storm several years ago via a simple YouTube channel; Folaim Ya Gholaim. Starting at just 17 years old, Meshal began to make Arabic-language short films – at the time, they were akin to music videos (with most films having a soundtrack and/or a musical number) with a comic twist – and publishing them on YouTube. Famous Saudi digital media company Telfaz11 – a pioneer of filmmaking in Saudi Arabia, producing and publishing films digitally – then jumpstarted his career after coming across his videos, later helping produce them and exposing him to their large band of followers.
...there’s a lot of stuff in the Middle East, not only in Saudi Arabia, that is normalized and I don’t think they’re normal at all.
His independent channel flourished in no time, with his films - later taking a more honed shape and a distinct style, venturing into social satires – reaching millions of views. Even his early films, most famous of which is Screw Infidels, published 4 years ago, have by now garnered almost 10 million views. As the channel grew, it quickly went from humorous 3-minute sketches, to a professional repertoire of quality short films – ranging from 10 to 20 minutes – that tackle an array of topics, from women’s struggles in Saudi Arabia (Can I Go Out?) to children’s lives in Syria under the threat of war (Under Concrete).
Treating nannies like [shit] in Saudi Arabia is normalized; treating some women like that is normalized.
Packaged, always, in a distinctly innovative format, with authentic dialogue, and brilliant cinematography, his films easily became not only Saudi favourites, but have also garnered him an immense regional and global following. And eventually, as he began to create projects outside of his now-infamous Folaim videos, his work became international-festival-worthy.
His latest film, Arabian Alien, produced and directed outside of Folaim as a project, is officially competing in Sundance Film Festival for the Grand Jury Prize for Best Short Film later this month. The film, which stars Saudi comedian Mohammed "Abu Hamdan" AlHamdan, tells the story of Saad, a married Muslim man dealing with depression when an alien from outer space is suddenly introduced into his life.
AlJaser with Saudi comedian and star of Arabian Alien, Abu Hamdan.
“I kind of found myself, in the process of making these [Folaim] videos. I realised that telling stories is my thing – but telling them visually,” Meshal told me as he precautions that he is not as equipped a conversationalist as he is a director. “I’ve tried everything, like directing, writing, sound design, being a sound guy, lighting, everything. But directing is definitely my thing.”
His latest film, Arabian Alien [...] is officially competing in Sundance Film Festival for the Grand Jury Prize for Best Short Film later this month.
For him, writing goes hand in hand with directing, which is why he is currently studying screenwriting in the U.S., at the the Los Angeles campus of New York Film Academy. Otherwise, he does not feel inspired and connected enough to a script to be able to direct it. “Most of the things that I do, for now at least, are what I relate to,” said Meshal. “The subjects that I tackle are the subjects that are normalized in my culture. Treating nannies like [shit] in Saudi Arabia [the subject of his short film Is Sumiyati Going to Hell?] is normalized; treating some women like that is normalized. And I think there’s a lot of stuff in the Middle East, not only in Saudi Arabia, that is normalized and I don’t think they’re normal at all,” he continues.
...it is best to call them absurd.
Full of dramatic irony and hilariously relatable scenes, his Folaim films gained traction from generations of social media users across the Arab world. Meshal’s films are eccentric, funny, satirical, and critical. The aforementioned film about a young Saudi girl going through the everyday, ever-increasingly-difficult struggle of a night out, for instance, includes two full musical numbers and a full-fledged action sequence between the girl and her sister fighting over who will get the driver for the night. In the span of 10 minutes.
Is Sumiyati Going to Hell? tackles the abuse and maltreatment of Indonesian domestic workers in Saudi Arabia.
In the final scene, after she goes through the four stages of how-to-convince-parents-and-brother-to-go-out, let alone to get someone to drive her, she ends up taking a taxi and being faced with the ultimate danger: a man who appears to be a predator, holding a rose between his teeth and shooting her a terrifying stare. The film then closes on a black screen with the hashtag “#Let_Saudi_Women_Drive” flickering in white in the centre.
In spite of the often serious subject matter, Meshal tastefully and critically approached his films with a tinge of absurdism that threads through all of them. “Sometimes, the situation is so sad, it becomes funny to me, because it’s funny how people think this is okay. This in itself is the joke,” he explains. That’s how he approached the making of Under Concrete (2017) – which was the winner of Qomrah 2, a Middle-East-wide televised competition promoting multimedia content – a story about the destruction of a Syrian family’s home, following the young girl who ends up trapped under concrete for the entire second half of the film.
A still from Under Concrete.
Although they are short pieces of social media content, they are packed with so many diverse elements of feature films – whether comedy, action, or drama – that they feel like full-fledged experiences in their own right. And it is best to call them absurd. It is absurd when a Syrian family who sits down to eat has a scare over the father who chokes on some food during family breakfast, when moments later, a bomb demolishes their home, killing them. Absurd and tragic. It’s absurd when a young girl who wants to go on a simple night out with her friends (to be home by 10:30, of course) ends up potentially assaulted because her brother was busy playing video games and no one else could drive her.
They were just mad because they don’t understand the irony
Those elements of irony and absurdism were not lost on global audiences as AlJaser took his work from social media to official short film territory; Is Sumiyati Going to Hell? received final nominations in Oscar eligible festivals, such as LA Shorts Fest and NewFilmmakers Los Angeles.
Although he seems to have perfected the format, short films are not in Meshal’s ultimate goals. “Usually, short films are like an experiment for a director to see if he’s ready to shoot a feature, because when you make a feature, a lot of people will be betting money on you,” Meshal explains. “The other reason I got into it is that I like to experiment, and it’s hard to experiment with features. You have to take them seriously; you can’t really just do whatever you want.”
...and they hated one scene where I peed in someone's face.
YouTube served as a great platform for what Meshal wanted to do when launching his content, especially considering the context in which he produced his films. Saudi Arabia notoriously has a long and severe history of censorship. Cinemas were banned in the country for 35 years, until December 2017 when the Ministry of Culture and Information announced the return of theatres across the country in a landmark decision. It came as part of the social and economic reform program under Vision 2030, spearheaded by Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman.
When it comes to the digital realm in particular, an anti-cybercrime law dating back to 2007 effectively legalises restriction of any content deemed to “infringe on public order, religious values, public morals, and privacy.” YouTube, though, provides a shortcut around that law – not because it lies outside of it, but because it’s a free, public network, and while a government can reject licenses for films, or not provide funds, they do not have much control over YouTube (unless of course, they choose to ban it country-wide, a la China). That, of course, does not mean his films haven't received backlash. They have. The state contacted Telfaz11, the production company he worked with on Folaim, about Screw Infidels, incidentally the video with the most views and likes. The short is more like a music video, taking on religion - a highly sensitive topic in the conservative country. “They were just mad because they don’t understand the irony, that I’m being ironic, and they hated one scene where I peed in someone's face. They said it was disgusting. At least we can agree that it's disgusting,” he explains. Thankfully, though, the video was never taken down.
I was making a movie for me, and for a minority. It was difficult to get the funds because it was more of a progressive film
But soon, Folaim became too big of a burden for Meshal to carry on his own, so for around two years he has not published anything on the platform. “I felt like I was running a whole company, it became too heavy of a project. Folaim was good, but I felt like there’s not really anything left to achieve in it.” He couldn’t deny, though, that it’s the freedom that YouTube – and the Internet – offers that let his films see the light, eventually taking him to Sundance and – potentially – to global acclaim.
With YouTube, he was working freely, on his own terms. But for films that require official funding and licensing – in his case, short film Is Sumiyati Going to Hell? released in 2016, which explores Saudi families’ racism and ill treatment of Indonesian domestic workers – the procedure can be a gamble. Funds are extremely difficult to find, and it’s often serendipitous support that gets people places. Meshal explains that, often, state-funded cultural organisations and state institutions in Saudi Arabia fund films that they themselves want to produce, and end up approaching directors to make them - but not as often do they fund the films that people propose on their own. “[Governments tend to] say, make a movie for us. And with Sumiyati, I was making a movie for me, and for a minority. It was difficult to get the funds because it was more of a progressive film,” he explains.
You shouldn’t have to have approval from a Western person to support your artists. I don’t want people to sell their identity to the West
Both Is Sumiyati Going to Hell and the new short, Arabian Alien, set to premiere in Sundance in January – which Meshal hints is going to be an exploration of love and life under oppression – are more advanced projects, according to Meshal, backed with a lot more funding. When he ran Sumiyati by the Ministry to get licensing, the script was rejected several times. He was eventually able to get it licensed through connections.
A still from the forthcoming Arabian Alien.
“What I’m worried about is the feature. Having to get funds for a feature will be difficult,” he continues. But one thing he realised helps - and has helped him in particular - is international support; and although this is a great advantage for him and has been a part of the reason for his success thus far, he does not actually feel entirely comfortable about having to rely on that. “You shouldn’t have to have approval from a Western person to support your artists. I don’t want people to sell their identity to the West,” says Meshal indignantly. Indeed, it was partly Paramount Studios’ interest in Is Sumiyati Going to Hell? that allowed its production.
But while financial backing from "the West" and the strings it may come attached with is something of a sore spot for Meshal, the bigger issue, he believes, is when the storyteller themselves is telling a story that doesn't belong to them. “Why are [film programs and fund organisations] paying someone and glorifying that person at a festival or something, when they don’t relate to us? Give a chance to all these talents that you have that have more authentic voices,” he says. “I feel very protective of my culture, so when I see a Western or a white person tell a Saudi story, I feel very jealous."
I feel very protective of my culture, so when I see a Western or a white person tell a Saudi story, I feel very jealous.
With Sundance Meshal did not seek help from insider connections or outside sources; he merely sent in his film in time for the deadline and it was approved, a rare occurrence for large-scale festivals such as Sundance. This however, points towards a deep-rooted issue facing filmmakers and artists in the region: the absence of any existing, supportive infrastructure to support them, and a forced reliance on acquaintances, friends, and friends of friends – a reality that does well for those in privileged positions, but erases and ignores the work of everyone else who tries to make it.
A still from the forthcoming Arabian Alien.
In spite of that, works like Meshal’s open room for discussion, analysis, and for the possibility that something as unlikely as a satirist and a young Saudi 24-year-old with a particular penchant for dramatic musical sequences, could make it as far as he did. And perhaps even if it is through connection – just as Telfaz11 came across Meshal as a 17-year-old kid – the often – yet not always – boundless world of the Internet can provide someone with the means for exposure and the ability to practice their craft.
And for Meshal, as long as he produces works that challenge what he refers to as “normalized ideologies” in Saudi Arabia, and stands up to the people who propagate them, then he’s fulfilling his calling. “Ideology comes through storytelling; any ideology, religion, Islam, grow from stories. Film is a very good space to sell an ideology, especially to people that wouldn’t like to have an argument about anything, so then, they sit down and watch and they don’t have to argue. It’s a meeting of the ideology and the subconscious."