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With ‘Kandahar,’ Saudi Arabia’s AlUla Is Ready for its Close-Up



Just a couple of years ago, few people in Hollywood would have heard of AlUla (or known the somewhat unique way to spell it). Located in Saudi Arabia’s northwestern region, in an area awash in sand dunes, desert oases and ancient ruins, some dating back to the Neolithic period of the Stone Age, it was previously perhaps best known for being part of the historic Incense Route and home to Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site.

But the country’s dramatic arrival on the film scene has seen AlUla become a central pillar of its cinematic plans, with huge investments made to lure international productions, build facilities and create a fully-fledged moviemaking hub where there was literally zero film industry before. And while the country continues to combat negative perceptions about its human rights record — including the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi — this has all been backed by a significant promotional campaign that has helped AlUla become a dominant presence across most major festivals.

In just a few months — on May 23, to be exact — history will be made when the first major Hollywood production to shoot there is released. The Gerard Butler actioner Kandahar may appear an unlikely, gun-toting flag-bearer, but not only was it the first big-budget production to descend on Saudi Arabia since the country opened its doors in 2018, it was also the first to shoot solely in the country, much of that in AlUla.

For Charlene Deleon-Jones, executive director of Film AlUla, the agency behind the region’s film industry plans, Kandahar is a project that shows exactly what can be achieved there (especially because it arrived in the midst of the COVID pandemic)

Speaking to The News84Mediathe exec discusses the next phase of AlUla’s progression, the benefits of bordering Jordan and how attitudes towards working in Saudi Arabia are changing.

What’s been the biggest change in AlUla since it first announced itself as a shooting destination?

Probably the biggest thing you’ll notice between 18 months ago and now is momentum. Eighteen months ago, you had huge amounts of vision and goodwill and lots of effort into building relationships. And now what you’re actually seeing is real traction on the ground. One of the biggest things that’s happened with AlUla is this real zoning in on what it means to be a filming destination. Eighteen months ago there was a strong focus on locations and looking at how to attract filmmakers and productions to these locations and what support they needed. And that has really evolved to looking at what it means to be more than just a destination where you come and film, to be a cultural hub and part of every aspect of the production cycle.

The first phase of construction of a studio complex was announced at the Red Sea Film Festival. I’m assuming this is part of that strategy to give productions more options beyond the landscapes and scenery?

Yes. The location is spectacular, and that’s a good thing. But really, the focus is on building the creative industry around the screen sector. You can’t build a creative industry around the screen sector with just outdoor locations. So we have the built-in environment, like studios. And I would say, even more important than that is the development of below-the-line crew. You can get a studio complex up relatively quickly, but with crew, especially quality crew, that’s something you develop over time. And that’s so important if you’re looking at creating a self-sustaining industry where you’re not totally dependent on having to fly in crew, so we’re looking at that piece of the puzzle too. And that’s also an opportunity for us to involve the local communities in what’s happening.

Jordan has obviously been the Middle East’s filmmaking epicenter for so long, and I know many producers there have been saying their crews are now regularly working in Saudi Arabia. Is AlUla heavily dependent on Jordanian crew?

We’re really fortunate to have Jordan as neighbors — I’d say it’d be pretty hard to find an entity that has been as successful in developing below-the-line crew. And they’re very easy to work with and communicate with. There’s a lot of crossover, and even in my team. I have some people who previously [worked] with the Jordanian Film Commission and still have strong ties there.

Kandahar, which shot predominantly in AlUla and was the first Hollywood production to film entirely in Saudi Arabia, is set for launch in the coming months. How much is that film going to be a flag-bearer for what can be achieved in Saudi Arabia and, in particular, AlUla?

I think what’s happened with Kandahar is really wonderful. It started around the same time as COVID, so you had a situation where not only did you have an action feature shooting in a place where that hadn’t happened before, but we also had a worldwide pandemic. So I think it shows how scrappy people are when they really want to get something done. For me, what Kandahar shows is that level of commitment that Saudi as a region has to develop film. And a result of Kandahar, I have entire members of my team who wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for that film. For example, you wouldn’t necessarily always have a government relations team in a film entity, but we do, because we want to ensure that if you have visa or customs issues, we can facilitate on your behalf. Also, Kandahar used AlUla in a way that wasn’t focused on its landmarks. What it did was show how AlUla could be used as a stand-in for other locations.

What projects have come through since Kandahar?

We had the Netflix feature Matchmaker and a huge amount of interest from a documentary perspective — more than 150 projects in that space. There are other things in the pipeline coming through. And one thing we’re seeing a lot more of is local films from across the Middle East actively approaching us.

Having visited the Red Sea Film Festival in Jeddah in November, I got the impression that the reluctance from much of the film industry — especially Hollywood — to come and work in Saudi has changed, that filmmakers and creatives who might have been hesitant about visiting or any sort of collaboration are now more open. Is that something you’ve found?

Yeah, and I think that’s a regional thing generally. In December, I had to travel through Qatar airport, and I was chatting with some US people who had gone to the World Cup, and they were talking about their concerns but said what a great time they’d had and that it wasn’t what they expected. It felt very familiar to what you hear when people come to AlUla.

The region of Neom is also heavily investing in building itself up as a major media hub and film destination. Nothing has been formally announced, but there’s talk that it will operate under its own jurisdiction and, as part of that, could create certain laws to help entice the global industry, such as a lifting of the ban on alcohol. Is that something AlUla has considered?

If I was to be super honest, AlUla’s not having an issue with attracting people. Really, in terms of what the tourism, culture, heritage and adventure offer, part of our issue is making the space for people to come. So across different areas of Saudi there are different approaches and thinking around “how do you attract?” But because AlUla is somewhere that’s already thriving in that way, it may well need to be a conversation we have in two or three years’ time. But at the moment, the type of thing we’re focused on is accessibility. You have direct flights here from Dubai, Paris, Cairo and Jordan. But it’s not every day and not always both ways. So how do we make sure that someone literally doesn’t lose a day of travel? Because if you have a crew of 200, you then lose 200 days. So that’s the kind of thing we’re thinking of from a film entity perspective, rather than changing local laws.

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