Meet the young Saudi Arabian filmmaker who made a road-trip movie: 'We broke a barrier'

Anas Alhumaid's 'Oudah' won the Golden Palm for Best Student Film at the sixth Saudi Film Festival

'Oudah' tells the story of a young man who is heading for Jeddah after being forced to leave his village behind. Anas Alhumaid 
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The road-trip film is a tried and true genre, but also a very malleable one.

A road is an instrument of progress. It offers an escape, as well as an entry. Ahead is the desired future, in the rear-view mirror is the past and its anxieties.

This makes it the perfect path to test a range of characters and themes. Rain Man, Little Miss Sunshine, Theeb and Mad Max are all road-trip films, and while each take advantage of the timeless metaphor, they tell very different stories.

Anas Alhumaid's debut short, Oudah, is very much a road-trip film, complete with the genre's winding dramas, but it's one that tells a contemporary Saudi Arabian story and you've probably seen nothing like it before.

A woman named Razan (Razan Tariq) stops to pick up Oudah (Wael Ghobaish) in the film. Courtesy Anas Alhumaid

The film tells the story of a young man, Oudah (Wael Ghobaish), who is heading for Jeddah after being forced to leave his village south of the city. His car breaks down during his journey and he has to hitchhike the rest of the way.

A woman named Razan (Razan Tariq) stops to pick him up, and – in classic road-trip film fashion – the journey they take together upends both their lives.

The film had its first public premiere at the Saudi Film Festival on Sunday, September 6, where it won the Golden Palm for Best Student Film. It was also nominated to appear at this year's Cannes Film Festival.

Oudah is 23 year-old Alhumaid's first cinematic effort and while the up-and-coming filmmaker says he never expected the title to win awards or become so popular, he knew for some time that this was a story he wanted to tell.

"I'd been mulling over the idea for more than a year," he tells The National. "But it didn't find its full form until I met with the co-writers, who took the story to a new level."

Alhumaid and the film's scriptwriters – Abdulrahman Alqarni and Majid Alahdal – met on an almost daily basis for a month, tweaking and developing the script until "it was just right".

"It was, I think, the most difficult part of making the film," Alhumaid says. "Finally we had it ready at the turn of the year, and we began to look for actors to play the parts."

Casting was not a straightforward process, either. Alhumaid says that because Saudi's film scene is still in its infancy, there aren't many seasoned actors to choose from. "We called friends and friends of friends and began auditioning a few people," he recalls. "Most were models by profession who had never acted before. We finally met with Wael and Razan, and they were perfect."

The film was shot over the course of three days in January in a village a few kilometres south of Jeddah. Courtesy Anas Alhumaid

The film was shot over the course of three days in January in a village a few kilometres south of Jeddah. After initial editing, the team – all of whom are under the age of 24 – ended up with 18 final minutes, three minutes longer than festival guidelines.

“We had to edit it again,” Alhumaid says. “That was tough, to take out a total of three minutes without compromising the story’s plot. But we did it, and I think we’re all happy with the final result.”

While Oudah was made exclusively with the Saudi Film Festival in mind, Alhumaid and the team decided to submit it to Cannes as well. "Around March, we heard back from them, saying we had been nominated. And though the festival was cancelled, it was still encouraging to know where we can reach if we put in the effort. I felt like we broke a large barrier."

Anas Alhumaid, 23. 'Oudah' is his first cinematic effort. Courtesy Anas Alhumaid

Even with the Cannes nomination, Alhumaid says he never expected to win the Golden Palm at the Saudi Film Festival. The young director was watching the ceremony from Riyadh and, he says, "When I knew the film won, I don't know, I felt like I was shaking. I was thrilled."

He says that the festival being held digitally helped in expanding the film's audience. "Before it would be only those who had tickets to the festival and physically attended would get to see the film. Now, it worked in our favour. It was shown on the festival's YouTube page and a lot of people got to see it. It's what helped it get traction on social media."

Alhumaid now intends to take the film to Egypt and has applied to the Cairo International Film Festival and the El Gouna Film Festival. "Due to the festivals' guidelines, it can only show in one of the two events," he says. "We'll see what happens."

Alhumaid says he is eager to work on a full-length feature next. But for that, he will need the support of the Saudi film scene.

“The industry here is still in its early stages. Festivals are definitely key to helping it grow and prosper, and we’re on the right path. But young filmmakers will need support from the government and individual players to help them grow to their full potential."