Saudi filmmaker makes YouTube splash

The Saudi filmmaker Mohamed Makki in Jeddah.

This article was published by the International Business Times

Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

Saudi Arabia is a country of 27 million people, and not a single movie theater. Still, filmmakers there are a rising force — and Mohamed Makki is one of the names to follow, thanks to an Internet mini-series called “Takki.” In three months the first episode has racked up more than a million hits on YouTube. The second and third episodes had more than 700,000 hits each within a month of being posted.

YouTube is hugely popular in Saudi Arabia, which has 12 million Internet users but 90 million YouTube page views a day, according to a report in Al-Arabiya. One reason might be that movie theaters have been banned since the 1980s, to appease conservative clerics.

Saudi filmmakers have had to turn to the Internet in order to get an audience for their films, and Makki is no different. His “Takki” is the story of a group of young Saudi men trying to make films in the Red Sea city of Jeddah, and of their romantic entanglements with women.

“Much of the story is based on my own life,” Makki, 23, said in an interview recently. “I have my own production company called Kingdom Pictures. We produce corporate films and documentaries. That pays the bills. But I’m more interested in storytelling, which is ‘Takki’, a project that I have been working on for a year and half.”

Makki hopes to eventually film several seasons of “Takki” – which means “where are we going to hang today?” in Mecca slang — with each season consisting of 12 episodes. Each episode so far has been only 10 to 14 minutes long each, something he has done deliberately, aware of the short attention spans of today’s youth.

In the series, Moayad Althagafi plays Malek, a twenty-something aspiring filmmaker who hangs out in a trendy café-lounge in Jeddah with his buddies Majed , Abdullah and Badur. One day Malek meets and films a woman, Bayan, while shooting a documentary at the café. At the end of the day she is standing outside waiting for her driver to pick her up – since women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia — and ends up being harassed by a carload of young guys. Malek just happens to be leaving at the same time, and after much persuasion she agrees to accept a lift home in his car, mostly to escape the rowdy teenagers. Sitting in the back of Malek’s messy car she finds an interesting book that he insists she take to read. From this seemingly innocent premise — something that would hardly raise eyebrows in the West but does in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia, where the sexes are strictly segregated — stems a social scandal that will make Bayan’s life hell. And in another twist to the plot, Malek does not know yet that Bayan is the new fiancée of his best friend Majed.

Social Disaster

“Bayan will face the consequences. Her father is going to find out about it, her fiancé is going to find out about it, and people on the Internet and social media are going to talk badly about her. Her reputation is going to be ruined, and she’s going to be devastated, crushed,” said Makki.

In such a stifling social climate, the director and his crew are surprisingly able to bend some rules. They’ve even filmed men and women together without being harassed by the religious police, who regularly raid restaurants in order to try and catch unmarried couples having romantic dinners. Sometimes they’ve filmed in public: “We just go ahead and start filming, we don’t stop to ask for official permission as that would slow things down,” explained Makki.

Silly DF law restricts Internet access

I NEVER thought that Brazil would have laws that were more police state than Saudi Arabia or China, but I was proved wrong a few weeks ago.

My friend Thiago and I were looking at laptops at FNAC, the French chain of electronics and book stores, in ParkShopping when we decided that we needed to check the Internet to find the closest Peugeot dealer. We walked over to the cell phone section where various mobile phone carriers had laptops on display with matching mobile Internet modem sticks. No one was around to help us and the computers were shut off, so we continued walking towards the in-store cafe that had a few computer terminals set-up for Internet access.
“We’d like to access the Internet please,” Thiago told the cashier.
“Okay, but you have to register first with us before we let you access the Internet,” she said.
In Brazil, registering for anything involves showing a government photo ID and giving ones CPF number, which is a tax payers number that everyone living in Brazil, native or foreign, is required to have. Since Thiago didin’t have his ID with him, I volunteered to register to get access to the Internet. I handed over my UAE driver’s license and my CPF card.
“You’re going to have to give me your home address, phone number and birth date,” the cashier warned me, perhaps sensing that this wasn’t going to end well.
“Okay,” I said.
“Father’s and mother’s name?” she asked me.
“What?! Why do you need that? I’m not 10-years-old,” I protested.
“Ah no! That’s too much. Let’s go Rasheed,” Thiago said.
“Do you also want my grandparents’ names?” I asked sarcastically. “Even in Saudi Arabia they don’t ask for this much personal information!”
“I’m sorry sir, but I have to collect all of this information, because if I don’t my company could be fined R$3,000 and they would take it out of my salary,” she explained.
According to the cashier it is a Distrito Federal law that requires them to collect so much personal information from each Internet user. A piece of paper she let me look at said it was law no. 3,437 that was passed on the 9th of September of 2004.
“I can’t believe they have such a law here,” I told Thiago as we walked away. “It’s worse than China.”
We eventually got a Claro saleswoman to let us use Google on her laptop to find the car dealership. And that too without giving her our parents’, grandparents’ or even our first names.

Challenges faced by electronic media

I participated yesterday in a conference entitled Challenges and Opportunities in Electronic Media organized by Mustapha Karkouti, the head of corporate affairs at the Higher Colleges of Technology.

The first day of the conference was held at the Abu Dhabi Men’s College on Sunday and I took part in a panel discussion about blogging. My panel was moderated by Alexandra Pringle, the editor-in-chief of Bloomsbury, and included Ilicco Elia, the mobile product manager for Thomson Reuters, and Bill Parkinson, technical manager of the BBC. Our discussion was proceeded by a short address by fellow blogger Helena Frith Powell, who works at The National with me.

I talked about the challenges that I face at The National trying to get our slew of blogs up and running on our website, and the difficulty to get reporters and editors to blog, either because they don’t understand the concept very well or because they feel it is an extra burden on them that they do not get paid extra for. This is a problem that many newspapers have faced across the globe, where reporters are being asked to only report and write stories, but increasingly are being asked to also take photos, film video and blog about events that they cover.

The overall theme of the day was that you cannot be a serious journalist without having an online presence. Both the Minister of Higher Education Sheikh Nahayan Mabarak Al Nahayan and Nick Guthrie, the editor of Dateline, London, noted that the Christian Science Monitor in the US is planning to scrap its print edition in April 2009 and continue running the paper as a purely digital one.

“Eighteen per cent of Americans said in a survey that their only source of news was the Internet,” said Guthrie. “There were 3 million Internet users in the Middle East a few years ago, and today there are 42 million net users, out of a base of 200 million. ….There are 12 million American adults blogging, and 57 million American blog readers.”

One of the most interesting participants was Vidar Meisingseth, the project manager of the Norwegian newspaper Verdens Gang. Strangely enough, his paper makes 42 per cent of its profits from its online edition and not from its print edition, which is the the reverse of most newspapers who struggle to make any money from their digital products.

“We have 2 million unique viewers online everyday, even though we only have a population of 4.5 million in Norway,” said Meisingseth. “For us traffic is king and we are always finding ways of aggregating traffic. At VG we get 12,000 posts a day on our discussion forums. We allow comments to go up and then we check them and delete offensive ones because of the huge volume.”

He added that after VG readers started using mobile phones with SMS and MMS capabilities, the newspaper was flooded with a veritable tsunami of story tips from readers. “Thirty to forty per cent of our stories online are from tips from our readers,” he said.

The conference continued today in Dubai. It was being co-sponsored by, the first Arabic daily online newspaper.

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