Arabian filmmaker Mohamed Al Salman never thought he’d leave electrical engineering—his childhood dream—behind to venture into filmmaking. And yet here he is, talking to us about the path that led him to the world of cinema, to his first short films and his feature film, Raven Song, this year’s Saudi submission to the Oscars—a coveted achievement for any filmmaker. Let’s rewind to how it all began and discover from the young filmmaker himself how dreaming big and taking risks are rewarded.

Mohamed Al Salman on the set of Raven Song. Image Credit: R.R.

During his engineering-school years, Mohamed joined the student theater—or rather, arts club—where he met several people who were interested in different artistic mediums, including filmmaking; intrigued, he decided to work with them and started editing, filming and colour grading. The experience ignited a passion for cinema. It was during that time that he familiarized himself with famous film directors by choosing a director and watching their whole body of work to eventually identify patterns and recognise their styles. He really wanted to create a feature film but thought about it as “a dream that was too difficult to materialise, especially at a time when the vision of Saudi was nowhere near its current state,” he admits.

Despite his reservations, he decided, after a year of working as an engineer, to write and direct his first short; that’s how Amongst came to life. It was chosen as the opening film for a local Saudi film festival, and that’s when he realized he had made a short feature that became an opening film at a festival. That, and interacting with cinema enthusiasts, made him pause and realize he needed to continue creating films. Subsequently, Al Salman produced Tongue, a short-film shot in his hometown of Al-Hasa, followed by 27 Shaban, Curtain and more recently, Raven Song, his feature film that boosted him to the big leagues with a submission to the Oscars.

While audiences might deem his earlier work as untraditional, he doesn’t see it as such, but finds justification in that perception:

“Amongst had no dialogue and involved symbolic pressure from peers; Tongue had surrealism and absurd comedy, maybe that’s why people perceive the films as untraditional. Maybe they were also untraditional because all we had in the Gulf back then was old-style and traditional TV,” he explains.

The surrealism and dark comedy recurring in the director’s work seems to be inspired by Joel and Ethan Coen whom he holds in high regard—his favorite film of all times is A Serious Man, which he often recommends to others. On what makes a great film, he shares: “I focus on character development rather than the plot. I prefer unique and relatable characters and themes that are discussed, rather than propaganda or overly political films. I also enjoy a filmmaker’s style and feeling their ‘tune’ throughout the film.”

Mohamed Al Salman on the set of Raven Song.

Having two short films on Netflix brought the filmmaker recognition and validation, and allowed his films to be more accessible to a wider audience. Al Salman recognises: “The importance of Saudi stories coming from Saudi filmmakers, rather than Hollywood representations of Arabs that might not be accurate. I was grateful that Netflix was interested in creating TV series and films with local talent in Saudi Arabia, allowing their stories to be heard and represented.”

When Raven Song premiered at the Red Sea Film Festival, Al Salman felt relieved. After working hard on pre-production, writing, production and post-production, he was eager for it to be released. The mixed reactions from the audience were both freeing and nerve-wracking, but the tenacious director was pleased his film was being discussed: “We were all proud. I was glad to see my crew so happy because everyone worked so hard on this film. It was interesting that the country recognised the film’s uniqueness and how different it is. I’m excited for the planned wide release and am looking forward to allowing the film to take on a life of its own.”

While foreigners might not understand some of the movie’s Saudi-related subtleties, Mohamed explains that the plot—a man, Nasser, who likes a woman and is writing her a song—is simple and universal enough for all viewers to follow. In fact, Al Salman affirms there is a ‘Nasser’ in every Arab country; he’s a simple man getting into the pretentious world of intellectual men and engaging with them in his simple terms, with his simple ways. Actor Asem Alawad, who played Nasser, “was the best thing in the casting” according to the director. He doesn’t speak much in the film, but his facial expressions say it all.

Finding the right case wasn’t the only challenge in bringing Raven Song to life: “If there was a checklist of how to make an expensive and hard-to-make film, I checked all the boxes; we had too many characters, locations, graphics and visual effects. Since it’s a period film set in 2002, we had to be true to the Saudi Arabia of that time, so it was all very challenging. But all the thorough preparation paid off. Thanks to my great crew, production team and companies involved, we pulled it off.”

Mohamed Al Salman’s journey from engineering to filmmaking demonstrates the power of following one’s passions. Despite initial reservations, he persisted and created a body of work that has garnered attention and acclaim.

“It’s a very good time to make films in Saudi Arabia because there is a lot of excitement and encouragement from film festivals to the Saudi Film Commission and others, and I think investors have recently become more interested in the commercial aspect of the film market. I’m currently writing a script that I’ll shoot again in my hometown Al-Hasa. It’s a bit similar to Tongue, my second short film, and is full of Hasawi culture, so wish me luck.” Al Salman is looking for financial investment for the movie, and based on the success of Raven Song and the increasing interest in Saudi talent, whoever backs him up won’t regret it one bit. I can say one thing with confidence, the filmmaker’s contributions to the film industry are sure to continue.