Netflix's Saudi shorts offer an open window into an evolving society

A collection of six films were released by the streaming platform worldwide

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Six short films from Saudi Arabia were released on Netflix last week, in a collection called Six Windows in the Desert.

The shorts range in genre and length, from a Surrealist Abstract piece of Modern art to science fiction centred on a plane crash.

The importance of these short films being made available worldwide cannot be overstated. Up until recently, it was very difficult to see the films coming out of the kingdom. This Netflix collection offers a glimpse into the everyday lives of Saudi Arabian youths, and how they deal with the country's past, and its ambitious future.

Two of the six stand out: Wasati by Ali Kalthami, and The Rat by Faisal Alamer. The former, which has a running time of 34 minutes, focuses on the real-life events of 2006 when a group of extremist clerics attended a play performed by students at Al Yamamah University in Riyadh, and proceeded to attack the actors on stage. The event garnered a lot of attention in Saudi society, and now stands as one of the last vestiges of the old Saudi stance towards the arts.

What makes the film stand out, though, is not its depiction of the incident, but how it manages to spin what happened and make it a positive event in modern Saudi history. The stand-in for the kingdom in this case is a character who works in a music shop and starts to lose his sight gradually, until one day he is completely blind. Before he does, though, he goes through a period of artistic exploration, watching classic films and admiring paintings from around the world. The blind man is then seen attending the fatal university play, and while everyone was busy with the fighting, a shoe strikes his head, and somehow partially returns his sight. An allegory of a wake up call.

The Rat is a more subversive piece. Alamer paints moving tableaux with the camera, and presents a film unlike any other that has come out of the Gulf. Its messages aren't spelled out clearly, but are told through camera angles and broad, uncomfortable moments of dialogue. The film tells the story of a man haunted by his past, and possibly his ancestors. The direction presents us with frames in which the viewer can insert his or her own interpretations.

Alamer invokes the works of Surrealist directors such as David Lynch and Sergei Parajanov in telling this simple yet evocative tale.

The other four shorts – Is Sumiyati Going to Heaven, Predicament in Sight, 27th of Shaban, and Curtain – should all be watched and experienced, too. Although the intention was never for them to be presented as a collection, the films fit together to reflect Saudi society and the changes happening within it.

Six windows in the Desert is on Netflix worldwide now