Saudi Arabia is becoming a global film destination: from 'Kandahar' to 'Desert Warrior'

With three international movies in production this year, the kingdom is quickly establishing itself as a Hollywood pitstop

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For more than three decades cinemas were banned in Saudi Arabia, but since the kingdom relaxed its laws in December 2017, it has gone into an overdrive in its mission to become the region’s leading hub for movie production.

The inaugural Red Sea International Film Festival finally took place in December after its planned 2020 launch was hindered by Covid-19, and a healthy local production industry is already in gear, delighting Arabic-speaking audiences at home (with Netflix’s Masameer: The Movie) and abroad (Haifaa Al Mansour’s Venice competitor The Perfect Candidate).

Pivotal to the kingdom’s success as a truly global production hub, though, is its desire to attract big-name international productions that will put it on the map and etch the image of Saudi Arabia into the minds of global audiences.

Here’s a rundown of some of the biggest Hollywood productions that have stopped off in the kingdom so far.

'Malcolm X' (Spike Lee, 1992)

Saudi Arabia may have only recently started establishing itself as a media production hub, but it’s not a total stranger to international cinema. Director Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic of the influential civil rights activist Malcolm X was shot in the kingdom as long ago as 1992.

The shoot was the first time any non-documentary, or indeed any American film, had been permitted to film in the Holy City of Makkah. The Saudi sections of the film deal with Malcolm, played by Denzel Washington, performing his Hajj in 1964, although the scenes were almost filmed in a stand-in set in New Jersey.

The film’s studio, Warner Bros, had initially refused to fund filming in Makkah because of the cost of hiring an entirely separate crew, as non-Muslims, including Lee and his leading man, were not permitted in the Holy City. Lee dug his heels in, however, and the studio eventually relented.

'Journey to Mecca' (Bruce Neibaur, 2009)

Bruce Neibaur’s Imax docudrama makes full use of the giant screen technology to bring the epic desert landscapes of 14th-century Islamic explorer Ibn Battuta to life.

The film stars Moroccan actor Chems-Eddine Zinoune as Battuta and is narrated by Ben Kingsley. It follows Battuta from his native Morocco to Makkah, meeting Bedouins, bandits and fellow pilgrims on the way.

The film received a wide global release in cinemas and was praised both for its sweeping cinematography, and for Zinoune’s performance. Saudi Arabia’s Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud said of Journey to Mecca: “It provides a wonderful opportunity for Muslims to celebrate a revered hero in Ibn Battuta and to honour our faith.” He wrote this in a letter to the director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, where the film was shown, as reported by The New York Times.

'Cherry' (Anthony and Joe Russo, 2021)

The Saudi region of AlUla, home to more than 20,000 square kilometres of sprawling desert, rocky landscapes and the 2,000-year-old ancient city of Hegra, has been keen to sell itself as a filming location.

The first Hollywood project as a result of Film AlUla's efforts was the Russo Brothers’ Cherry, which stars Tom Holland as a PTSD-suffering Iraq veteran who turns to robbing banks to fund his and his wife’s opioid addiction.

The film’s second unit spent three days shooting in AlUla, standing in for the desert of Iraq, with one more day spent shooting in Riyadh.

'Cello' (Darren Lynn Bousman, 2022)

Jeremy Irons stars in 'Cello', which was partly shot in Saudi Arabia. AP

Jeremy Irons and Tobin Bell (aka Jigsaw from the Saw franchise) star in this forthcoming period horror from Saw II to IV and Spiral director Bousman.

The film is a truly international affair, and although the big names attached are British and American, Cello also features cast and crew from France, Italy, Canada and across the Middle East.

It is funded by Saudi production company Rozam Media and comes from a novel and script by Saudi author Turki Al Alshikh, who is also the chairman of the kingdom's General Authority for Entertainment. The film shot for 39 days, 12 of them in Prague, doubling for Italy, and the remainder in Saudi Arabia, divided between AlUla and the capital.

The finished film will be in Arabic and English, and although there’s no official release date yet it’s expected later this year.

'Kandahar' (Ric Roman Waugh, 2022)

Gerald Butler's 'Kandahar' is shooting in AlUla. Photo: Thunder Road Pictures

Kandahar reunites Gerard Butler with his Angel Has Fallen and Greenland director Waugh for an action film about a CIA operative who is stranded in enemy territory while on a mission in the Middle East. Given the film’s title, it’s probably not a huge spoiler to reveal that we’re talking about Afghanistan specifically.

The film has a multinational cast and crew of about 200 in the kingdom, including about 10 per cent Saudi nationals, according to Film AlUla commissioner Stephen Strachan. It is co-funded by Saudi media giant MBC and is shooting extensively in AlUla, as well as locations in Tabuk, Hail, Jeddah and Taif.

Filming began in November 2021 and is expected to last until the end of this month.

'Desert Warrior' (Rupert Wyatt, 2022)

This is the biggest production to take place in the kingdom to date. Rise of the Planet of the Apes director Wyatt is heading up a crew of about 500 for this big budget historical epic, the first major international production to base itself in the kingdom’s under-construction Neom media zone. It is also the first venture into English-language content for MBC Studios.

Anthony Mackie (The Falcon and the Winter Soldier), Sharlto Copley (District 9) and Kingsley (Gandhi, Schindler’s List) head up a glittering cast that also features British-Saudi actress Aiysha Hart (Line of Duty, A Discovery of Witches).

Neom is a vast 26,500-square-kilometre area, the size of Belgium, situated on the shore of the Red Sea. By 2030 it is expected to have six sound stages and former twofour54 Abu Dhabi chief operating officer Wayne Borg has been taken on to help develop it. Borg promises that, when complete, Neom will be “the world’s first truly integrated media hub, both physically and technologically”.

Updated: February 27, 2022, 11:16 AM