RIYADH: Filmmaker Marios Piperides made his way for the first time from his home country of Cyprus to the Kingdom to screen “Smuggling Hendricks” to Saudi audiences in Riyadh on June 16.
The screening was part of the inaugural one-week European Film Festival, which hosted a series of 14 European films at The Esplanades’ VOX Cinema.
“Smuggling Hendricks” is based on a true story that revolves around a struggling musician, Yiannis, who plans to move away. His plans are disrupted by his dog, Jimi, crossing the border that separates the southern Greek from the Turkish north. Since the exchange of animals between the countries is prohibited, Yiannis enlists the help of a Turkish settler to retrieve his dog. The film consists of strong political and legal commentary of the issue in Cyprus, packaged in a feel-good arthouse comedy.
The filmmaker hopes to create a political discourse, share the story based on his own experience and get people to discuss “the nature of borders,” he told Arab News. “We build our own borders and keep people away, and we create this fear for the unknown.”
His film journey began 20 years ago when he came back to Cyprus after completing his studies in the US. This exchange opportunity allowed him to gain knowledge from the American film industry and contribute to the film scene back home.
This demonstration of cultural exchange parallels the initiative of the EuroFest in Riyadh, which aims to expose the Saudi people to international efforts, prompt introductions to Saudi filmmakers, and create a space for discussion.
Since the film market is competitive, the filmmaker hones in on the importance of giving an audience a reason to pursue a niche film as opposed to bigger, more accessible productions.
“I think it’s (about trying) to find a way to tell something locally, but with international appeal. If you can do that, and you can share a local story that will appeal to somebody from Cyprus or somebody from France, that’s the bet that you have to try and win . . . You have to find your own voice,” Piperides said.
As the independent film scene in Europe is struggling, and funding is becoming harder to acquire, it is a marvel that the Saudi film industry is on the rise, the filmmaker said. While there were only 14 movie theaters on the island, Saudi is currently home to more than 50 sites.
“Coming from a small country, it’s very important to have this opportunity to exchange and understand each other’s culture through cinema,” Piperides said.
“The good thing here is that you have a big market that we don’t have in Cyprus. You have a growing market that starves for film. The whole thing is new. In Europe now, their attendance is going down,” he said during a talk as part of the side events calendar of the festival, moderated by TV and radio personality Muhammad Bajnaid.
For the filmmaker, cinemas create a space for people to share their experiences, views and opinions and open up the floor for discussion about specific issues. “The cinema in Cyprus, during the 50s, or till the 80s — it was huge. There were a lot of cinemas. In a small village with two to 3,000 people, there were six cinemas. And now there is only one art house cinema, and it’s struggling,” Piperides said.
“It’s important to see if they can do a parallel program,” he said.
While this is the first European Film Festival in Riyadh, a way to improve this is to bring arthouse and independent films to the capital and neighboring cities and towns.
“It’s important also to have smaller art house theaters. To show more, not only European, more arthouse films, not only blockbusters, American, Bollywood, or Egyptian. I believe there is an audience (for that).”
Arthouse films are renowned for dealing with complex issues that cater to a niche genre as opposed to a mass audience, making them less popular with global markets. “Distributors are not bringing (European art films) because there’s no way to get their money back. Through festivals, you can see good films that otherwise you wouldn’t have the opportunity to,” he said.
The film first premiered in 2018 and has been screened in multiple regions across the globe. “It’s still nice to see that it’s still fresh, still interesting. It’s still current because nothing changed, basically — the political situation in Cyprus. And it deals with borders also which is still (an issue).”
In a way, the film documents the evolution of not just the director’s skills, but also the industry itself. Piperides highlights the crucial role of reflecting on past works and continuously criticizing. “I see mistakes that I did or more directing-wise, the technique, the script, things that could have been better . . . At the time, this is what I knew. You learn and you try to do better things. Being critical about yourself and your work is important.”