DUBAI: What is it like to be an artist in a changing Saudi Arabia? Saudi director Mansour Assad will tell you: it’s often harder than it looks. It’s been five years since the Kingdom kickstarted its film industry, and in that time, it’s built a landscape with seemingly limitless potential for aspiring filmmakers, complete with a passionate local audience eager to see new homegrown content. What’s the challenge, then? Pleasing everyone; something few have found the ability to do.
Assad’s feature debut, “Slave,” explores this problem with a wicked satirical bent. In it, a young married couple create a short film of themselves as they argue in the kitchen, which goes viral overnight, garnering merciless feedback that quickly morphs into a life-changing scandal. The husband, Sakkir, finds himself in the interrogation room of a detective who offers him a way out — a magic marble that, if swallowed, will send him 48 hours into the past, allowing him to remake his film and quiet his many critics. With each attempt, he fails even more spectacularly than the last.
“When I called this movie ‘Slave,’ what I meant was that this is a slave to society,” Assad explains to Arab News. “The point I’m exploring is that society will never change if we don’t have the courage to change ourselves — and be honest with ourselves.
“It seems in the social-media era, influencers and content creators give people what they want and forget themselves,” he continues. “Even in the world of movies, it often feels like we can’t make a real story because society is not ready to see that there are sad people in our world. Some people aren’t ready to hear that some of us have real problems — and that was so triggering to me I had to make a film about it.”
Having picked up the Golden Palm for Best Film at the 2023 Saudi Film Festival in May, “Slave” has finally opened in cinemas across the Kingdom. As exciting as that milestone is for a young filmmaker, Assad also braced himself, knowing full well he was opening himself up to the same criticisms that inspired the film — criticisms he saw in the comment sections of so many YouTube sketches produced in the Kingdom over the last decade that affected the trajectory of many of his peers. To his delight, the film has been met with near-universal praise.
“I’ve gotten so much positive feedback since it released. It seems there’s a lot of people angry about the situations that the movie explores. Every day, I’m getting someone thanking me for making it — someone who wants to speak about their own experience. And people also seem to think I’m a good artist myself, which is really pushing me forward,” says Assad.
Oddly enough, Assad never intended for “Slave” to be his debut feature. The 27-year-old thought it would be his third short film after 2019’s “Soul: Rooh” and 2021’s “Acceptance Land.” He started filming without any financing in place — without even sketching out a budget — but as he shot it, the project continued to grow in scope.
“I started by sacrificing some of my bitcoins. I raised about SR40,000 ($10,664) from that so I could start filming what I thought would be a 30-minute short. Honestly, this was no great loss, because crypto crashed a week later and they lost basically as much value as I’d sold them for,” Assad says with a laugh. “But as I went, I realized there was more story to tell. So we started going around meeting with to financiers and showing them what we’d produced, and that was how we raised the money to turn it into a feature film.”
“Slave” is not Assad’s first venture into the world of science fiction and fantasy. “Acceptance Land” explored similar themes. That film was set in 2096 after Earth had been ravaged by World War III and a person’s place in society is marked by the color of their clothes.
While his interest in the genre may come from his childhood obsession with director Christopher Nolan and Hideo Kojima, creator of the “Metal Gear Solid” video game series, the ideas behind his films are personal.
“I do have one theme across my movies so far,” he says. “It’s freedom. Each of these films is exploring the idea of humanity, and worlds in which people are not allowed to live as they want, to be who they are. But I’m trying to change that now. In my next films, I’m ready to explore new ground.”
That new ground that Assad is ready for is already right in front of him. He’s currently finishing the script for a new film called “AlUla’s Eagle,” inspired by his country’s unexplored recent history.
“Maybe 40 years ago, there was a group of men who believed that the heads of the ancient eagle statues in the area were ‘haram’ (forbidden), so they started systematically crushing the heads of those statues. My story will follow one of those men,” says Assad.
He’s hugely excited by the story, as well as the potential it has as his first properly budgeted feature to propel him to the next level. But as excited as he is to be true to himself in his art, following the lessons that he’s set for his own characters, he’s also focused on how to succeed in the current landscape.
“I think here in Saudi Arabia, we’ve really figured out how to tell a good story. We’re producing so many unique ideas all the time, and we’ve started to find success and win awards at festivals. The next phase is really not just about making a good movie, but figuring out how to communicate it,” Assad says. “It’s not enough to win something at a festival if you can’t get people to see it. The exciting thing is that everyone I talk to — whether that’s other filmmakers or people in the government — really understands this. We need to put our focus on how to get the word out, or else all we’re producing will disappear as quickly as it’s released.”
He’s also conscious of his wish to avoid getting trapped in a similar feedback loop to his characters in “Slave,” while also getting better at discerning which comments are actually worth reading. There will always be critics in the digital world, he’s accepted, the trick is knowing how to harness them.
“I think making art for broader society can be a very dangerous sport if you don’t realize how to control it. It’s great to have your own vision, but if you don’t figure out how to operate in a society, you will fail too,” Assad says. “What I’m doing now is learning what to take from this feedback loop that’s valuable, make stories that are more straightforward and can generate a bigger conversation. That’s what my heroes have done, and since I was a kid I’ve told myself that I will be like them, too.”