Contrary to popular belief, Saudi Arabia is actually home to a rich and diverse culture.
Up until a few years ago, however, with the exception of the popular sitcom Tash Ma Tash and a handful of other shows, the Kingdom had little cultural exhibits to show.
The ultraconservative environment within Saudi Arabia was discouraging emerging talents, to the point that even the actors of Tash Ma Tash received death threats.
However, after the sudden increase in popularity of social media following the Arab uprisings, the first glimpse of Saudi talent breathed life.
It wasn’t until Hisham Fageeh's viral song No Woman, No Drive that the YouTube channel attracted regional attention.
The video was released in 2013 after a handful of women defied the ban on driving and took to the wheels.
Looking back now, just a couple of weeks after the ban was lifted, the video may seem ironic, but it is cultural exhibits like these that can create social reforms.
Former Telfaz11's Hisham Fageeh is now a solo artist and was featured in Barakah Meets Barakah, the film selected to represent Saudi Arabia in the 'Best Foreign Language Film' category at the Oscars last year.
"The new leadership that we have all over the Gulf is very much aware of the importance of arts and culture..."
As for No Woman, No Drive, he does not think that this video is ironic at all.
"It’s an encapsulation of a time period. This was a part of our reality. The new leadership that we have all over the Gulf is very much aware of the importance of arts and culture which is responsible for the archival of a civilization," he tells StepFeed.
Today, Telfaz11's YouTube channel has amassed over 12 million subscribers and more than one billion views.
The team has also been invited to screen their work in film festivals and independent cinemas around the world.
Developing talent in Saudi Arabia
Being a part of Saudi Arabia’s emerging film industry proposed a few challenges ... such as finding talent.
Telfaz11’s talents and artists manager Mohamad Kazak says that while Saudi Arabia is home to a wealth of talent, these skills need to be properly developed.
Some of the challenges he faces at work include the introduction of new talents, after which he would manage, develop, and direct the focus of these individuals.
“The first step is to focus on the talent itself, without thinking of the finances. With the support of the government of Saudi Arabia, and the platforms that they are providing, it became easier to develop these talents into stars,” Kazak tells StepFeed.
"Nothing is impossible..."
Less than a decade ago, the Kingdom offered no platforms for young Saudi talent like creative director Ibraheem Al Khairallah.
“With the availability of the internet, nothing is impossible. It has provided us with the possibility of reaching more variable audiences, and thrived through the community and culture interactions within and around the worldwide audiences,” Al Khairallah told StepFeed.
Head of production Mississippi Ibrahim believes that the secret behind the company’s success is that they have kept their “goals precise and persistent”.
Having started his career on the stage, participating in a social media initiative like Telfaz11 has given him a lot more exposure to a wide variety of audiences.
Ahmed Al Erwi, head of marketing, also believes that online platforms like YouTube offered Saudi youth the chance to express themselves.
“At the beginning, it gave you a place to experiment creatively. Then it became the place to engage and learn as well,” he tells StepFeed.
Despite the need, female talents are more difficult to reach.
“The female talents are not as available as male talents, unfortunately. Yet again, we always scout for female talents in different sources, and different platforms,” Kazak says.
What art director Nada Radwan loves most about Telfaz11's movies is their ability to "visually represent the nuances and layered intricacies of what it means to be Saudi."
"The first project I worked on as an art director was Meshal Al Jasser's film: Is Sumiyyati Going To Hell? … [where] the cast was mostly female; being surrounded by such talented women and empowered by Telfaz11 to pursue this project was an exceptional experience,” she tells StepFeed.
"I knew a woman making a film in Saudi would get attention as a political event."
For Al-Mansour, directing a film was a means to assert herself and her voice in a culture where women were often invisible.
“It wasn’t anything against me specifically, but I felt so low. I wanted a hobby to help cope with the situation, so I made a short film ... with my brothers and sisters,” she said in an interview.
“I knew a woman making a film in Saudi would get attention as a political event.”
Wadjda, which became the Kingdom's first Oscar entry, narrates the story of a little girl who dreams of riding a bicycle.
“I wanted to make points about my culture in a way that is not too radical. A bicycle is not intimidating – it’s a toy – but it has a lot of modern connotations of acceleration, being on top of one’s destiny. For me it represents how a woman should be,” she added.