Electric Kingdom: American documentary captures Saudi Arabia’s transformation

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When American businesswoman Carla DiBello first traveled to Saudi Arabia in 2014, airport staff reminded her upon arrival to cover her hair and close her abaya in line with the country’s strict dress code.

But just three years later when she traveled to Riyadh to attend the first Future Investment Initiative forum in 2017, she noticed a major difference.

“This time I was told not to worry about covering my hair and that I didn’t have to sit in a designated section for women at the airport,” said DiBello in an interview with Al Arabiya English.

Recognizing these differences, DiBello set out to explore the reforms underway in Saudi Arabia through her first documentary, “Electric Kingdom,” which captures a watershed moment in the country’s history.

“It’s rare that one witnesses the kind of massive progression that’s going on in Saudi Arabia in such a short amount of time. It’s a story that deserves attention. To me, it’s the perfect example of the potential this country has to offer,” said DiBello.

Saudi Arabia’s transformation, spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 plan, has opened the traditionally closed country to outside visitors, investors and filmmakers.

The country began offering tourist visas in September to citizens from 49 countries and welcomed over 24,000 visitors in the first 10 days. Its national oil company Saudi Aramco confirmed Sunday it will go public, allowing outside investors to buy shares, in what is expected to be the biggest initial public offering (IPO) in history.

And now the reforms have allowed DiBello, previously a producer on successful American television shows like “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” the opportunity to film the reality of life in Saudi Arabia.

“Electric Kingdom” centers on Saudi Arabia welcoming the first Formula E electric car race in December and the domino effect the event had in sparking other firsts in the country - the first mixed gender concert, the first female race car drivers, and the first visits on government-issued tourist visas.

To film these events - which all happened in the span of one year - DiBello brought a team of ten Americans to Saudi Arabia, including Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated director David Darg. One ‘first’ moved the American crew to tears.

“Watching Jason DeRulo, as the first Western artist to step on a stage in Saudi Arabia, was very overwhelming. Our crew caught the reaction from the Saudi nationals in the audience; it was moving to see some Saudi men and women enjoying a concert together for the first time. It brought tears to a lot of us to witness,” said DiBello, who produced the film with fellow American producer and actress Dawn Olivieri.

Screengrab from documentary Electric Kingdom
Screengrab from documentary Electric Kingdom

Now other foreigners can also experience history being made in Saudi Arabia through “Electric Kingdom,” which recently premiered at the Washington West Film Festival in Washington, DC on October 27. DiBello said the film received a “great response” from Saudi nationals in attendance, who were amazed that a documentary of this kind had been made about their country.

“They were excited they can now share this moment in their country’s history with their peers in the States,” said DiBello.

DiBello hopes the film will reach both Western and Middle Eastern audiences, and thinks American viewers will come away with a different perspective of the Middle East.

“I wanted to depict how my team and I saw the country as Americans. This film really is the coming together of two worlds,” said DiBello.

Carla DiBello at 2018 FII (Supplied)
Carla DiBello at 2018 FII (Supplied)
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