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The marginalized artist and the pressures of representing an underrepresented culture

Saudi filmmaker Hamzah Jamjoom visited Philly to talk about ego and cultural equity. January 18, 2017 Category: FeatureFeaturedMediumPurpose
Hamzah Jamjoom was the first Saudi film student at Chicago’s DePaul University. That accomplishment was a precursor of sorts to the challenge he would come to face as a professional filmmaker: How do minority artists create work that adequately portrays their underrepresented culture?

“It’s a personal pressure. [In Saudi Arabia], film culture is nonexistent,” said Jamjoom. “Maybe this will be one of the first movies people will see about Saudi, so I want to make it perfect and portray my culture in a way that is absolutely flawless.”

A daunting task, and one Jamjoom would eventually learn to face down by abandoning ego.

Jamjoom, who has most recently directed a television show called “WaMahyaya” that deals with that very idea, talked about his journey as a filmmaker at a recent screening and panel in Philadelphia with local culture nonprofit Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture and the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture.

There’s a “huge misrepresentation” of Saudi culture in mainstream media, said Jamjoom — camels, white robes, your stereotypical Lawrence of Arabia getup. That, he said, is the image of life in the Middle East that Hollywood has perpetually portrayed. But Jamjoom places blame on Saudi Arabia as well.

“It’s our fault for not creating art and film,” he said.

That’s changing. Right now, he said, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is experiencing a creative boom. Jamjoom has seen the rise of film culture in the nation firsthand, but he’s also seen its nonexistence: When Jamjoom was filming his 2011 film “Arabia,” he asked the government to block some streets for shooting. They had no idea what that meant, he said.

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Finding funding is another obstacle altogether.

“There hasn’t been a single movie that showed Saudi investors that you can make money with film,” he said. “We have to have people invest in movies and continue to sustain us as filmmakers. But [Saudi] investors are used to traditional investments in oil and plastics, things like that.”

Jamjoom is leading an effort to inform funders of an industry on the cusp of change in the Middle East — all while overcoming issues of representation and cultural equity in the West. Can his work help clear up misunderstandings of the Arab world — or is he just reinforcing stereotypes?

Jamjoom found relief in burying his ego and telling his personal truth. He hopes other filmmakers and artists do the same.

“Stories are the way to find the truth and share truth. It’s a way to bring people together and bridge gaps between cultures,” he said. “We have to let go of our personal ego to find and share the truth.”

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