Conquering Netflix and opening a film festival: How the Godus Brothers are taking Saudi Arabia to the world

Two huge announcements have made this filmmaking duo the hottest property in Saudi cinema

Suhaib Godus produces and stars in both films while his brother Faris directs. Courtesy Suhaib Godus
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It's been a busy week to be a Godus brother. In the first of a pair of announcements made only days apart it was revealed the Saudi filmmaking siblings' 2016 sci-fi film Predicament in Sight was among six Saudi-produced shorts bought by Netflix for global distribution as part of its Six Windows in the Desert package, which will begin streaming on February 27. It was the first time the platform has taken licensed Saudi content global.

To have a film festival in my hometown, I couldn't have expected that in my dreams. To go to my car and go right to the festival where I can show my film. It really is a dream

Shortly after this revelation, Jeddah's Red Sea Film Festival announced the duo's latest film, Shams Al Maaref (The Book of the Sun) one of two films to receive a $500,000 (Dh1.8 million) production grant from the festival's Tamheed Fund would open the first festival, which takes place next month.

When The National caught up with Suhaib Godus, who produces and stars in both films while his brother Faris directs, he was too excited to know where to even start, so we took the chronological approach, with February 11's Netflix announcement.

"We were excited, but worried too, because we actually made the film in 2016, although it's never been screened publicly outside the festival circuit," he says. "When you look back, you wish you could change certain things, but of course we didn't have time because of The Book of the Sun. We're currently finalising the music and sound and should have a final cut for the festival ready on March 3."

It may have taken four years for Predicament to reach a wide audience, but for Shams Al Maaref, the Godus brothers have worked to an incredibly tight timetable – the Tamheed grant was only awarded in the final week of August last year, with the final cut due in only two weeks. Suhaib admits that, prior to receiving the grant, he and his brother had "nothing but an idea". So how have they turned around a festival-­opening feature in barely six months?

"We've been surrounded by many talented people, a really good solid group who all shared the same passion and belief in this film," says Suhaib. "Faris is one of the greatest directors I've ever worked with. I don't know if that's a valid claim since I'm his brother, but he really is. We've worked together since 2010 on multiple projects, and have really grown in the industry. We love a challenge and we've come through it, all of us together."

In fact, it's not just the two brothers who have worked together since 2010. Many of the team that worked on Book of the Sun come from a new wave of Saudi content creators that began to emerge in that year. Godus excitedly describes an online content revolution that began taking shape as platforms like YouTube began to supercede traditional TV in the kingdom. Indeed, many of the emerging talents found themselves working at some stage for Telfaz11, the online content creation studio that produced all six of the Netflix shorts, and for whom the brothers worked until they set up their own studio to work on BotS last year.

A still from 'Shams Al-Maaref' (The Book of Sun), the Saudi film which will open the Red Sea International Film Festival in March. Courtesy of Red Sea International Film Festival

It’s probably no coincidence, then, that their feature, which tells the story of a high school student who decides to set his studies aside to make a no-budget, online horror film, is set in this very year: “We wanted to document the era of these changes taking place in Saudi,” says Godus. “The story takes place in 2010 because, for me, that year in particular was the year that content in Saudi had a real shake up. It was the tip of the mountain of everything that’s happening now.”

Prior to this watershed year, says Godus, shows like the popular satire Tash Ma Tash had ruled the Saudi airwaves. While the producer/actor concedes that the show was "great fun," it had run for almost 20 years by 2010, and spawned a host of imitators that made traditional Saudi TV take on a very repetitive tone. All of that would change in 2010.

Some of the cast and crew from 'Book of the Sun'. Courtesy Sohayb Godus

"There was this real new wave of talent came through telling new stories, and that really shaped the new era of Saudi content through the medium of social media, and that's why we wanted to show that [in Book of the Sun]" he explains. "It was a real break from everything we'd been watching for two decades. Social media gave a real opportunity to creators and artists to really explore a new style of content and new types of stories, and to move away from greedy producers that only seek money-generating content. This new wave cared about the content itself, and for us the industry became about pure content. The Book of the Sun touches on some of that history."

With the Netflix announcement, the brothers have surely reached the current pinnacle of online distribution with Predicament.

Behind the scenes on the Godus brothers' 'Book of the Sun'. Courtesy Sohayb Godus

To seemingly conquer the, sometimes seemingly insurmountable hurdle, of big-screen acceptance with BotS within a week is quite an achievement, but Godus is trying to keep things in perspective: "Well, hopefully that's not our final achievement, but we're really excited and happy, and really proud, though of course we want that to be a beginning, not the end," he says, before allowing a little of the emotion to creep through. "Yeah, to have a film festival in my hometown, I couldn't have expected that in my dreams. To go to my car and go right to the festival where I can show my film. It really is a dream."

Godus isn’t only happy for himself, however – the huge strides that have been taken in the Saudi industry, beginning with the opening of cinemas in 2017, and culminating, for now, with the region’s largest film festival in March are of monumental significance for all content creators in the region, and Godus is clearly excited for the future: “We are entering a new phase with the opening of cinemas, and I think that’ll be the biggest change ever for film makers and artists in Saudi,” he says. “I’m really proud. That’s the only word to describe it, and really happy how things have turned out. I always believed in Saudi artists and film makers, and I think over the next 10 years or so, film making is going to really flourish, and we’ll really see what Saudi talent can do.”