For young moviemakers taking their first steps towards a career in the industry, receiving the embrace of a film festival can be life changing. In the case of young Saudi director Meshal Al Jaser, his chance has come thanks to Sundance, the annual event held in Utah to celebrate US and worldwide independent cinema.
He had to wait for about a month before learning his short, Arabian Alien, was accepted by festival organisers, long enough for self-doubt to take hold. "I didn't get a call from them and I thought, 'Maybe I'm not good enough'," Al Jaser, 24, says.
The news his film will be screened at the festival was exactly the tonic he needed. "I felt really good because I had the flu that day … I was already struggling," he says.
Raised in Riyadh, for the past five years Al Jaser has lived in the US. After working as an intern for C3 Films in his homeland, he studied screenwriting at the Los Angeles campus of the New York Film Academy. But his real film school was more homespun, when he began to craft his Arabic-language short films at the age of 17.
Published on YouTube channel Folaim Ya Gholaim, these brisk shorts were like music videos, using songs and comedy to gain the attention of audiences. When Saudi digital media company Telfaz11 discovered his work, it helped him gain greater exposure. His early films, such as Screw Infidels, have had millions of views online.
Gradually, Al Jaser's work has taken on a more political edge. His 2017 short Under Concrete dealt with the lives of children in Syria, while 2016's Is Sumiyati Going To Hell? examined the treatment of nannies in Saudi Arabia. He says his plan was to focus "on subjects that people will try to avoid and I personally can't avoid". "For me, filmmaking became not an entertainment tool, it became a tool more to express my opinion."
With Arabian Alien, a film that sways between the absurdist humour Al Jaser is known for and a more serious tone, he wanted to conjure what he calls a "romantic sci-fi". The film follows Saad, a Riyadh resident and married Muslim, played by Omani-American actor Abu Swaleh. "Saad is basically a depressed dude," Al Jaser says with a laugh. "He doesn't like his wife that much."
But when Saad encounters an extraterrestrial – played by several actors, wearing a beautifully designed silicon mask – everything changes. Rather than feeling frightened or acting violently towards the creature, he is intrigued by it. "For Saad, his world is pretty dark," Al Jaser says. "So the moment he sees an outsider, something really different, he's fascinated."
Al Jaser was inspired by his own experience of life in Riyadh, where he says he found it challenging to deal with the authorities. "They would approach you for anything – for wearing jeans, for wearing a T-shirt that has English words on it, for having afro hair – they would shave it," he says.
He says he was keen to use his work to explore love and relationships in the kingdom.
"There are Saudis who no matter how difficult it was, they were still willing to take the risk, and there's something romantic about that," he says.
Al Jaser comes from a conservative family, which made him feel like something of an outsider. "My family is not into art at all," he says. "I did something that they never thought I would do."
He says there is still harmony in the family, even if some members, such as his eldest sister – who is studying for her doctorate in Islamic studies – do not always approve of his work. "She's my favourite sister, because we accept each other's decisions."
When it came to shooting Arabian Alien, Al Jaser filmed in Los Angeles, with the city doubling for Riyadh, which he says "was much harder" than filming in Saudi Arabia. "The set design, the wardrobe … it was all an expense," he says. "In Saudi, you can just tell the actors to bring their traditional clothes. But nobody could do that here."
It wasn't the only difficulty he encountered, with the performer originally cast to play the alien forced to duck out of the production. "There's a scene where the alien is handcuffed, he's caught, and my main actor got claustrophobic [inside the mask] – he has asthma problems," Al Jaser says. "He couldn't do the scene so we had to replace him. And then it happened again in another scene."
This is all par for the course when making low-budget films and Al Jaser took it all in his stride. He was particularly pleased by the contribution of Abu Swaleh. "He's a professional actor," Al Jaser says. "I went to school with him. He's half African-American and half Omani. So it's a very nice mix. He's just a really lovely underrated actor."
When it came to tackling the sci-fi elements of the story, Al Jaser says he knew what line he wanted to pursue.
He cites Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and Christopher Nolan's Interstellar as two of his favourites from the more cerebral end of the scale. "I like really good sci-fi," he says. "Not the comic book sci-fi. Not like Marvel."
So given the subject of his short at Sundance, does he believe in aliens? Does he feel that we're not alone in the universe? "I've never had any alien encounters but I definitely believe that there's way more than us," he says.
"It's a fact that we're just tiny and we can't see more than seven planets. We can barely make it to the Moon so how can we judge the whole universe? It doesn't make sense. We're not the only ones, I believe."
While Al Jaser says he hopes Arabian Alien will spend the year being screened across the globe and visiting other festivals, he's already plotting his next move. His time studying screenwriting has led him to craft "a set of scripts" that, he hopes, will lead him to the holy grail of young filmmakers – a first feature. "I'm ready to develop them to go for production," he says.
He’s an alien no longer.
Arabian Alien screens at the Sundance Film Festival as part of Shorts Programme 2, which begins on Friday