Article

SAUDI FILM NIGHT: ALHAMOUR H.A. - A Little Vapid, but by What Standard?

"What do you think of ‘The Line?’”, my friend, Ben, asks of the Saudi person sitting next to us. An oud sings out melancholically on stage. I catch eyes with the oud player. I'm excited.   He says he doesn't know much about “The Line", so they go on to banter about sport, and how we call soccer “soccer”, and they call soccer “football”.

featuredHomeFodderreviews

"What do you think of ‘The Line?’”, my friend, Ben, asks of the Saudi person sitting next to us. An oud sings out melancholically on stage. I catch eyes with the oud player. I'm excited.  

 

He says he doesn't know much about “The Line", so they go on to banter about sport, and how we call soccer “soccer”, and they call soccer “football”. 

 

I too don’t know much about “The Line”, but later discover it is a part of Saudi Arabia's Neom project — a plan for a carbon-free smart city that stretches out across a 170km line. It’s a part of the country's 2030 vision of diversifying economically and culturally in response to their expected decline in oil exports. The nation’s reopening of cinemas in 2018—cinema theatres have been banned in Saudi Arabia since the 1980s—is also a part of this. And the Saudi Film Night, which I'm attending at the Sofitel Hotel on Collins Street, is also in line (pun—not initially—intended) with this vision, aimed at bringing Saudi films to an international audience and fostering collaboration between Saudi Arabian and Australian film industries. 

After a Welcome to Country, the lights dim and we're transported into Afnan Bawyan’s Saleeg, a clay-like, puppet short film beginning with a grandmother stirring a pot of rice in her home, before it overflows. She quickly shuts her window as someone passing by peers in, before the rice floods her entire house and, swallowing her pride, she runs outside, asking her Urdu-speaking neighbours for help.

Bawyan says Saleeg speaks to the experience of urbanisation and how crisis brings strangers together. Touching in its simplicity, the puppetry creates a sense of precious fragility and, even to me, evokes nostalgia.

This quaint tone then shifts to the more adult-themed, though arguably lighter, feature film—Alhamour H.A. by Abdulelah Alqurashi—a comedy-drama inspired by the true story of a Saudi security guard named Hamed, who makes billions conning people through a Ponzi scheme in the 2000s.  

 

Hamed—smooth, relatable; somewhat endearingly funny—guides us through his story with voiceover narration and direct-to-camera asides, lulling us into the story in a way that perhaps only a narrator can.

As it progresses, however, the narration starts to feel more like a clutch. Hamed’s "this is so interesting and funny" tone creates a false sense that the film is exploring something, when we’re just watching quite repetitive, generic scenes of a guy getting rich, taking drugs and making jokes with his buddies—albeit with snappy editing and effortless performances by the actors. 

 

Don't get me wrong —though it’s not my genre of choice, I do believe that guys getting rich and making jokes can make for a story. But we never seemed to sink into any specific feeling of this story. There’s some light social commentary—we sympathise with Hamed’s position within broader society. But I guess on the whole it felt a little like it was created by A.I., lacking any detail that allows me to feel something. 

I wonder whether this relates to a slight sense of Saudi Arabia self-consciously presenting an image of itself, one which shows a particular kind of liberality (access to alcohol or drugs; the screening itself, of this on film).

I’m not suggesting that this image is a lie, just that this image kind of felt like a big point of the film, which could make sense in a context where Saudi Arabia are seeking more international collaboration. “I didn't know Saudi Arabia was like this in the 2000s,” Ben says mid-way, which seems to be one of his main takeaways from the film.

But why shouldn't Saudi Arabia aim for a generic blockbuster kind of film? Or perhaps a more appropriate question is why should I be holding a commercially motivated film up to a different standard than … just that. By its own aims, Alhamour H.A. is probably successful(ish). It was released on Netflix in December 2023 and is, though one might get a bit bored with its drawn-out partying section, a light movie, probably good enough to watch after work or have humming in the background, as the world continues its seeming collapse and Western partners invest in Saudi Arabia’s self-proclaimed “eco-city” that displaces thousands. Sometimes we just need a break from it all and need to watch a movie where we don’t have to feel anything real.

 

In the Q&A, one audience member comments on the female characters not playing any active role in the film. There isn’t much exploration of the perspective of Hamed’s wives Fatima or Jihan, who are mainly passive reactors to Hamed. The moderator sidesteps this comment, problematising how comedy typically places females as a set-up for the jokes of men, Saudi Arabian or not.  

 

Rashad Albarqi, concept artist of Saleeg, expresses less cynicism. In the Q&A, she says that she’s excited to explore how her craft might develop into expressing a distinctly Saudi Arabian voice. She also says it is wonderful for Saudi people to finally see their own stories on the screen. 
 

I don’t really know what my takeaway is. That day, I learnt about Neom, watched a quaint short on neighbours connecting over a crisis, and a generic, fill-in-the-gaps sort-of white noise. They’re three contrasting little windows, though in some ways, they might speak to each other. I see the oud in my peripheral vision as we walk out, my little snippet of Saudi Arabia fading behind us as I wonder if I could have taken the chance to talk to more people.    

 
Farrago's magazine cover - Edition One 2024

EDITION ONE 2024 'INDIE SLEAZE' AVAILABLE NOW!

It’s 2012 and you have just opened Tumblr. A photo pops up of MGMT in skinny jeans, teashade sunglasses and mismatching blazers that are reminiscent of carpets and ‘60s curtains. Alexa Chung and Alex Turner have just broken up. His love letter has been leaked and Tumblr is raving about it—”my mouth hasn’t shut up about you since you kissed it.” Poetry at its peak: romance is alive.

Read online