Diversity in Film: Waleed Alqahtani
BY Gina Hackett, May 28, 2020
Diversity in Film is a bi-weekly series covering underrepresented groups in Film.
This week, we sat down with recent graduate Waleed Alqahtani ’20. A Saudi filmmaker who truly does it all—from writing and directing to doubling as an editor and cinematographer—Alqahtani discussed working with Debra Granik, his plans for a debut feature, and films that help us all feel less alone.
We’re close friends and collaborators, so I know you as a master of self care. I’m curious how you’re practicing self care in quarantine.
Waleed Alqahtani: It’s funny, because in everyday life—going to work, meeting people—I think self care is a part of my daily routine. But now, the definition of that is changing. Self care, to me, has become more essential and simple. Like waking up at a normal hour and doing a ten-minute workout and drinking water and not being hard on yourself. Staying “productive,” but whatever productive means to you.
As the graduating class of 2020, we’re gonna be talking about this when we grow up. I want to look back at it as a time of growth and self-reflection. There are bad days, there are good days. I am putting on less sunscreen than I did pre-COVID, let’s say that.
You shot your thesis film in January. You produced it in record time alongside one of our close friends, Chloe Sarbib ’20, the director. Tell me about that.
WA: Chloe had been working on a feature script, Her Tender Eyes, that I had eyes on for quite a while, and that we all loved. She decided to condense it and turn it into a short. To make a New York short. And I felt very confident about that idea because I knew I could pool those resources together, but it was a race. It was a very hard, emotional experience on a day-to-day basis, because we weren’t just collaborators, we were friends.
Chloe and I used to do this thing all the time where, going into this project, we told each other we would talk about hats. I would say, “producer hat on,” and we would strictly talk in the context of our producer-director relationship, and then I would say, “friend hat on,” and we would talk as friends. And that was the saving grace of this collaboration. It also meant that we saw each other a lot more often than we ever had, you know? Which at times like this, Chloe and I miss.
When you make a film happen on such a short timeline and on a small budget, it often demands knowing when to push for something you want, versus accepting what you have. How do you find that balance?
WA: The truth is, I don’t know. I don't like to say that, obviously, because people always think that when you’re on set—or when you’re writing or making or feeling anything—you should inherently know. That you should be on set and say, “I know this.” But even in the early phases, the collaborative relationships that I’ve built in the program have come out of “I don’t know, what do you think?” or “I don’t think this feels right.” Honestly, it helps when you have a group of people that you really trust who can help you answer that question. Because you can’t do that on your own.
It all goes back to one thing: Why are we filmmakers? Why are we artists? We’re curious people. And curious people often ask, “why?” or “how?” It’s part of who we are.
You spent the past year working for Debra Granik, who made Winter’s Bone and Leave No Trace. From what you’ve told me, it seems as though she has a very unique relationship to research given that she mostly directs narrative films.
WA: Right. But it goes back to the point you and I just talked about. She’s a curious person. She comes at things in a specific way, as in, “If I don’t know, I need to know.” If you’re going to make a film about a veteran living on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon, you’re going to need to talk to people who’ve gone through that. And you can’t pretend like you know. That’s what I learned most from her, to look into those little crevices and spaces. Talk to people. Find things. She always knew when something was interesting to her and when it wasn’t. There’s a lot of responsibility that she takes for her projects and for what her films say.
In what capacity did you work for Debra?
WA: Debra has been working on her upcoming feature, which is based on the book Nickel and Dimed. It’s about a journalist who goes on an undercover investigation into the life and survival of low-wage Americans, all to see if it’s a livable life.
I was there to help her from a research perspective. She has a very extensive process, and I would cut behind-the-scenes footage from other projects, or I would help her create mood boards and cut together bits and pieces of actors improvising. I’d connect her and her producer, Anne Rosellini, with locals in the New Jersey community where the film will be shot. At the same time, I was creating briefs, really learning about third-level marketing schemes and minimum-wage jobs, the strikes at Walmart. A lot of very extensive research.
Looking back, how do you see your path to filmmaking?
WA: I grew up in Saudi Arabia. We didn’t have movie theaters. I’m kind of a broken record when I say that, but it really does make a difference when you think about what the theatrical experience is for a kid like me. You know, Saudi is a somewhat closed-off society. That’s changing, but we’re still very private people. Everyone stays in their homes, and you have a big TV, and it was kind of a ritual to me at home, when I felt sad or I hadn’t done my homework: I would watch something. I just loved movies. I ate them up.
WA: Honestly, American independent films. The Graduate, I remember watching Silence of the Lambs. A lot of old Egyptian films.
When I was a kid, my family and I went to LA for the first time. I think I was 11 or 12, and I was so giddy, so excited to go to a movie theater in America for the first time. I remember my parents jokingly saying to each other, “Please look after him, or we’ll never see him again. He’s just gonna stay in the theater for the rest of his life.”
I loved that experience so much, and it really inspired me to imagine that kind of career, but I never really thought it was possible for me. Where I’m from, there wasn’t an industry. I couldn’t really point to someone who had done it before. That was hard, to be a trailblazer. But when I was in undergrad, I heard about this Saudi film, Wadjda, that was shot entirely in Saudi, directed by a female filmmaker named Haifa AlMansour who came from the same region I’m from. I was obsessed. I was going to drive anywhere, go anywhere to watch this movie. I waited so long to see it. When I saw it, I was really inspired. To see my country, to see the houses, the people, the women, the men, the buses, the cars, the dust, the sand, the trees.
Putting where you’re from on screen is particularly difficult when there is no filmmaking there. Why do you still feel like you have to make a film in Saudi?
WA: Films have been made there before, even before Wadjda. But I don’t think I’d seen something like Wadjda before. And ever since then, there have been filmmakers (like my friend Raed Alsemari, who made Dunya’s Day, which won the jury award at Sundance), and there’s a bunch of up-and-coming filmmakers and actors and a great community of people there. It only encourages me to feel like I have people there. There are people like me. They’re dreamers, they’re people who do this because they have to, because it’s part of their blood, it’s part of their DNA.
There’s obviously a fear. There’s a fear of failure, a fear of making mistakes. But that’s part of it. How many times have we failed in the program? All the Directing class exercises. All the drafts that aren’t working, that we feel bad about. The cuts of our films that make us hate doing this. Sometimes. It’s also part of the reason that we keep doing it.
It’s funny, because I’m going on my ninth year of living in the United States, and Covid-19 has made me ask myself, “Do I want to make my Saudi film here or do I want to make it in Saudi, where there are Saudis, where I can talk to people and see the place that really inspired me, that I write about, that I talk about, that I think about?”
It’s so hopeful to want to make a film in your home, because it’s a place you have a love-hate relationship with. Everybody feels that way about home, I think.
WA: It’s true. There are specific things that make it difficult, because it’s such a private society. There are obviously things that are changing about it. I’m excited about those changes. I’m excited about what it’s gonna look like in the next two years, three years. I think that’s fertile ground for creative work and for telling stories. At the end of the day, I also have space. I have a voice, a dream, ideas, and I feel a place like that would actually welcome me a lot more than faking California or New Mexico for my hometown.
You mentioned not having a roadmap for becoming a filmmaker, because there wasn’t an industry in Saudi. What made you believe there was a space for you?
WA: When I think about the movies that really impacted me, whether they’re my favorite films or films that changed my point of view about something, oftentimes they’re films that made me feel less alone. I want to do this because when I was a little kid, I wanted to feel less alone. I want to make something for that little kid to make him or her feel less alone. Especially now that things are so crazy, I’m still watching movies, and they still make me feel less alone. They still make me feel the way I always felt when I watched Lost in Translation and felt that big feeling in my stomach, like “Someone knows how I feel.” I felt that movie because I felt that culture shock, that separation, that distance when I was 18 and moved to Seattle, which was the farthest place on earth from Saudi. And it was the first time a movie made me feel that way, where I felt so connected to an experience that, in essence, is an illusion. That’s the reason I want to make something.
What are you working on now?
WA: I am working on a short film that I put off for a year to make my thesis. It’s based on a feature project called Amal that was a finalist for the SFFILM Rainin Grant, and it’s a project that I’ve planned to make for a while but is now screaming for my attention. Hopefully, that could lead to making the feature a reality. I owe it to myself. It’s about a woman who goes home to Saudi Arabia insisting it’s temporary, but she finds that her once wealthy family is falling apart. When her younger sister gets engaged, she chooses to stay and pursues their estranged father for support in an effort to keep all the pieces together.
Making this film is a dream of mine. I think I was always a dreamer. That’s why I’m a filmmaker. Sometimes that can be a little naive, but I think it’s okay to be a little naive sometimes.
Oh, it’s 7 o’clock. People are clapping outside.
That's very sweet.
WA: I’m gonna clap. [Claps.]
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