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Kuwaiti filmmakers face financing problem ‘Censorship a form of dictatorship’

KHALED M. Siddik is a pioneer in the field of fine arts and motion pictures in Kuwait and the Arabian Gulf. An internationally acclaimed filmmaker, he is a writer, producer and director. In 1971, he co-wrote, produced and directed ‘Bas Ya Bahar’ or ‘The Cruel Sea’, the first full-length award winning feature film in the Gulf. He followed it up with ‘The Wedding of Zein’ in 1976, which won among others an award at the Cannes. Over the years, Siddik became a force to reckon with in the field of motion pictures. He also served as jury member and jury chairman at various international film festivals.

Throughout his life, Siddik has been a rebel and refused to conform. He has flouted conventions, and pursued his creative dreams and while doing so surmounted several challenges both personal and professional. Despite many award winning films to his credit, ‘Bas Ya Bahar’ Siddik’s first feature film was special. This film made history. It made history as the first film to be produced in Kuwait, it made history as the only film till date to depict the life of pearl divers, it made history by winning nine major international awards and it made history because it was made at a time when there was no culture of filmmaking in the Arabian Gulf. In Insight, Arab Times catches up with Khaled Siddik as he shares the story of Kuwait’s first film, his journey as a film maker, the predicament of the present generation of Kuwaiti film makers and the role of censorship.

Question: What brought you to film making? There was no history of filmmaking before you in Kuwait.
Answer: In fact, at that time, there was nothing here in Kuwait. I learned film making in India. As a six year old I studied at the Sharqiya School where we had a very tough headmaster named Ahmed Saqqaf. He knew nothing apart from caning (laughs). Gradually, I and few others decided to skip school. During school time, we would hide in the cemetery next to the school, and trap birds. It went on fine for some time, but then my father caught me twice coming out of the cemetery. The third time it happened, he put me on the steamer to Bombay. He had offices in Bombay, and he told them to get me the best education. I studied in St Peters High School in Bombay.

Q: Did you have problems adjusting to life in India?
A: In the beginning it was tough. I knew no language apart from Arabic. I knew neither English nor Hindi, nor Marathi, which I had to learn later.

Q: So what brought you to film-making?
A: It was tough in the beginning cut off from my world and my analysis of the situation is probably movies were a sort of escapism for me. Movies probably disconnected me from my miserable life. I was crazy about movies. On weekends, I watched American movies, Hindi movies and British movies. Later at the age of 12, I started visiting the Central Studios, which belonged to Guru Dutt. Gradually they allowed me to join as an intern.

Q: What kind of work did you do?
A: I did everything. I did the work of a carpenter. I worked in the laboratory. Basically, I did the job of an office boy. Later, I also attended a movie making class at the ‘Photo Kala Mandir’, where I learned a lot.

Q: Were there others in Kuwait, when you started making films?
A: No, I was the first one. In fact, we didn’t even have equipments when I came back to Kuwait in 1961. I had a big row with my father who wanted me to join his business. I said I wanted to make films. He said ‘No, movies are haraam in Islam.’ Finally, we had our clash; I left him and joined Kuwait Television, which had just started.

Q: What was your experience with KTV?
A: There was nothing in Kuwait TV, no equipment, no know how. I taught myself TV production and gradually after a year I started persuading the supervisors and the undersecretary to buy movie equipment.
I did some short films for Kuwait Television. In 1964, I directed Aliawassam, the first ever Gulf production. It was about 20 minutes in length. In 1965, I made a documentary on falconry. I made other short movies until 1971 when I directed ‘Bas Ya Bahar.’ I produced the film as the government was not ready to finance feature films.

Q: Why?
A: Because we had no experience. Because they thought it was not that important. There were many excuses, and I could not wait. I had to do it.

Q: Where did you show your short films?
A: The short ones were shown in theaters as a side show.

Q: What challenges did you face in your initial years?
A: The main challenge was with mentalities. I had a tough time with the Parliament after the release of ‘Bas ya Bahar’. The Parliament wanted to ban it. They wanted to ban and burn the negative. They thought it was a disgrace to show how Kuwaitis were poor. But that was the reality. And they should have been proud that they were well – off now. Many people don’t understand that. But, unfortunately, in those days, some of the MPs who were very rich didn’t want to remember their old ‘poverty’ days.

Q: How did you manage to release the film?
A: The good thing was in those days HH Sheikh Sabah, our present Amir was the Minister of Information. He was an open minded person who supported me.

Q: Apart from the mentality, what other challenges did you face?
A: We did not have enough technicians. Funnily enough, I did not have assistant directors. I had only one cameraman and we helped each other. Later, I appointed one assistant director to share the load. Usually, directors have three or four, but I thought I could make do with at least one. But after twenty days he disappeared. He couldn’t take the load. After a time, I got another one, and this guy disappeared after a month. So I had to finish the film without an assistant director. After all, I was taking the whole risk. It was my money, my reputation, and my dream.

Q: What was the local attitude to the film?
A: It was unheard of. We had an unbelievable response. HH the Amir, God bless his soul, Sheikh Jaber al Ahmad called me to his office and said, “I heard people are being taken to the movie on ambulances from the hospital.” I told him that I was not sure so he asked me to find out and let him know. I started watching people come into the theatre, and I found that it was true. They used to bring people in wheel chairs and ambulances for the movie. In fact, it was the first time in the history of Kuwait that a movie ran for about 6 weeks.

Q: Why do you think people reacted the way they did? Is it because it was the first Kuwaiti film?
A: Because I think it was very authentic. Not just from the point of view of the story line or the dramatic content, but I was also conscious of other things. I included anthropology and history. I included the social lives and financial lives of the people. I included real, anthropological songs of marriage. Nothing was superficial. In that sense, the film was rich. The other aspect was that this was the first movie to be shot underwater ever in Asia. That was the greatest risk I took. In fact, I didn’t know how to do it only till the last minute. Also, I made the film black and white. Commercially speaking, the film should have been in colour, but before oil, I feel, colour didn’t exist. Kuwait and the Gulf was a dull, poor community and the best way to express this would have been in black and white.

Q: How special is ‘Bas Ya Bahar to you as a filmmaker and as a Kuwaiti?
A: There was no experience in filmmaking in Kuwait and so I had to finance, produce, direct, write and distribute the film. When the movie was ready, I met several distributors around the Arab world, and everybody turned me down. They wanted stars in the movie. I could have had stars, but I knew that the Kuwaitis would not accept an Egyptian star as a pearl diver. I needed to have real Kuwaitis. When all of them turned down my movie, I played the trick through festivals. I started participating in festivals around the world, and it clicked. Continuously, the film picked up award after award. Two years later, the Arab distributors contacted me, but I told them it was too late. What I also did was I introduced the concept of a director’s movie and not a star’s movie, because in the Arab world even today, movies are star driven.

Q: Coming back to your personal life, did you manage to reconcile with your father?
A: That is an interesting question. When HH Sheikh Jaber agreed to do the premiere of ‘Bas Ya Bahar’ under his auspices, I took an invitation to my father. His response was, “Movies are haraam. I am not coming.” He was very angry. I said, “HH Sheikh Jaber, the Amir of Kuwait is the patron.” He refused, “La Haraam.” He did not come. Months later, I was invited to another premiere in Bahrain held under the auspices of Sheikh Essa, the ruler. My younger brother called to say that father was in a coma. I flew back. Two days later he passed away. But I was told that a year after the movie ‘Bas Ya Bahar’ was premiered, my father who was very sick told my brother, “Faisal, let us go to Kaled’s movie. The Sheikh is coming, we have to go.” From this, I gathered that he approved of what I was doing.

Q: Are you in touch with the young filmmakers of Kuwait?
A: Once a year I invite the young film makers over. There are about 25-30 of them. They make short movies and I have a screening room upstairs. Some of them tell me that their father helped them make their set. I tell them I would like to meet their fathers, and tell them what my father was like. (laughs)

Q: Maybe things have changed. Your father belonged to a different generation.
A: But he was a traveler compared to other Kuwaitis. All his life he was traveling for his business. You don’t expect this kind of mentality from someone like him. I thought he would support me.

Q: Did you leave Kuwait television after ‘Bas Y Bahar’?
A: I wanted to resign, but they did not allow because I was representing Kuwait in conferences, and festivals around the world. They asked me to go ahead and make movies. I said I would if they financed my movies, and I would quit without any real support.

Q: Did they support you?
A: No.

Q: Why?
A: I don’t know. It is hard to say. Were they not civilized people? After all, it was good propaganda for the country.

Q: So you financed your films?
A: All of them.

Q: How did you do it?
A: I had my resources, and when the movies were sold, I made others. My concept of movie making was not for the local market, but for the international market, and it clicked. My friends who are into film making abroad think there is a lot of money in Kuwait. I tell them, yes, there is money, but not for movies.

Q: What were the other problems you faced as a film maker?
A: Earlier, the filmmakers faced the problem of monopolies of screening in Kuwait. It was all run by one company, take it or leave it. That monopoly ended a few years back.

Q: So you made films for the international market?
A: Yes. That is how it sold. And that is how I could survive and make more movies.

Q: Did you work on any collaboration?
A: I did once. But when you collaborate, they expect me to pay 80% because I am from Kuwait. It is a real problem being a Kuwaiti.

Q: Did you face any other discrimination?
A: Yes. I was discriminated against at some festivals. For instance, my film ‘The Wedding of Zein’ was in competition at the Delhi Film Festival in the early eighties and there was no better movie than that. From the first screening everybody was congratulating me. Indian filmmaker Mrinal Sen was the chairman of the Jury, but he discarded my movie and gave the first award to an amateurish movie called ‘Umrao Jaan’. A friend of mine who was in the jury told me years later that everyone supported my film apart from Sen. He convinced the jury that I did not need the money or the support as I was from Kuwait. I supposedly had oil wells and the award should be given to a beginner or someone who needed it. It was pathetic.
Now, when I am on a jury the first thing I announce is there is not going to be any injustice the way I felt, the way I was treated and, unfortunately, I have been unjustly treated a lot of times.

Q: Why?
A: The main problem is that I am from a rich country. They think I have oil wells. Whenever I go to shoot a movie, the price goes up because I am Kuwaiti.
Only educated intellectuals like Satyajit Ray understood the situation. For instance, in 1972, ‘Bas Ya Bahar’ was nominated at the first International Festival in Tehran. Ray was a jury member. Later, I heard that Mr Ray was the only person who fought for my movie.

Q: I think you once shared an award with Ray?
A: Yes, ‘Bas Ya Bahar’ shared an award with Mr Ray’s ‘Seemabadha’ in 1972 at the Venice International Film Festival.

Q: Do you still direct and produce?
A: I do produce in Europe, but I do so under a pseudo name.

Q: Why do you use a pseudo name?
A: Many reasons. After the invasion of Kuwait, my studios were looted and destroyed, and I had issues with the compensation. But I do work now to kill time, and these are not the kind of movies I would like to have my real name on them. Sometimes I write movies that I sell.

Q: You started making movies in the sixties. Do you see any difference between then and now?
A: Censorship has become a significant problem. Earlier, censorship was government driven and it was much more flexible and lenient. But now, unfortunately, the censorship is bad because of the interference of the Parliament. Because of this even the government is trying to tighten up. It is a very sad issue. At times, I show the young film makers my earlier movies, and they get really surprised. For example, in 1968, I made a short movie called ‘Faces of the Night’ where I showed a woman in a night gown just above the knee. There is another scene where I showed a table with playing cards, five six kinds of scotch whiskey with a gun, and a drunk guy. When they see these scenes the young filmmakers marvel, they say, “Oh! Were you allowed to do this?” I tell them that Kuwait Television produced these films. Today these things are not allowed. That is one reason I don’t want to make any more movies here because I feel really handcuffed. I believe in self-censorship. I know where I stand and what the red lines are. These people we have elected democratically are forcing censorship on us. Censorship is a form of dictatorship, and Kuwait is a democratic country. It is very sad.

Q: Is that a reason Kuwait has not been able to develop a film industry of sorts?
A: The biggest problem is getting finance. I feel sorry for these young filmmakers and I do not know how to help them. They make commercials, and they make movies with whatever they make out of commercials. Some of the movies are beautiful, but they still go around begging for money. And these short movies do not make money. Despite the technological advancements, the young film makers are in bad shape.

Q: How do you see the future of film making in Kuwait?
A: Well, it will go on as today, unless a decision is taken by the government to develop this. The situation is unfortunate in the Gulf. A couple of GCC states have allocated large budgets for movies, but it is all run by the ‘blondes’ and the ‘blondes’ prefer ‘blondes’. I hope the situation in Kuwait changes, and more finance is made available to film makers. However, we must also remember that when it is the government’s money, there are strings attached.

Q: How do you look back at your journey?
A: I had dreamt of paving the way for a full-fledged movie industry, but everything is going the wrong way.
 However, I have enjoyed every moment of my journey. At times, I feel I could have done more, but then I would have had to sacrifice quality, which I was not ready to do.


Education: St. Peter’s School in Bombay India; interned at Central Studios, India; Masters of Arts degree in Radio/Television Administration and Production from Chelsea University; a PhD in Motion Pictures; elected to the Academy of St Mary’s University, San Antonio — Texas USA; trained in Italy, UK and the USA. His first feature film ‘Bas Ya Bahar’ or the ‘The Cruel Sea’ won 9 international awards including Silver Lion Award – Venice Film Festival (Italy); FIPRISCI Prize of Venice Film Fest (Italy); Silver Hugo Chicago Int’l Film Fest (USA); Golden Fish – Cartagena Sea Films Festival Spain; Fellowship Degree – San Antonio Texas; Honor Award – Tehran Film Fest Iran; Best film at Damascus Film Fest, Syria. His films that followed won several international awards.

Also, in 2012, honored at the First GCC Film Festival at Doha, Qatar;In 2011 the State of Kuwait Appreciation Award; In 2009, the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Dubai Gulf Film Festival; In 2000 unanimously elected as Chairman of the first Association of Gulf Film Makers; A member of the Board of Directors of the Asia-Pacific Producers Association since 1980.

Authored several books, newspaper articles, papers, articles and discourses on movie making. Participated in several International Film Festivals including New York, Chicago, Golden Globe – CA, Montreal, Venice-Italy, London, Spain, Paris Cannes, Moscow, Tashkent, Karlovy Vary, Prague, Damascus, Cairo, Tehran, Delhi, Bombay, Bangkok, Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Seoul, Kuala Lumpur, Sydney, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Muscat, Fribourg – Switzerland. Member of Jury at the Soussa Festival Tunis (1999), President of the Jury at the Paris Fest (2000) and Member of the Jury (Tehran In’tl Festival (2003),

By Chaitali B. Roy
Special to the Arab Times

By: KHALED M. Siddik

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