First Saudi film fest to give a push to cultural exchange, fledgling industry

Red Sea International Film Festival will be held in Jeddah Old Town from March 12 to 21; women’s rights, immigration are among the entry themes

Updated - February 18, 2020 10:22 am IST

Published - February 18, 2020 02:02 am IST - Mumbai

Main features:  The highlights of this year’s film festival include Oliver Stone as the head of the jury and a special screening of Spike Lee’s  Malcolm X .

Main features: The highlights of this year’s film festival include Oliver Stone as the head of the jury and a special screening of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X .

The historic Red Sea International Film Festival, the first ever in Saudi Arabia, is set to take place at the UNESCO World Heritage site of Jeddah Old Town from March 12 to 21. Three-time Academy award-winning American filmmaker Oliver Stone, of Platoon, Wall Street , Born on the Fourth of July , JFK , Nixon, and Natural Born Killers fame, will head the competition jury. The other highlights include a special screening of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X , the first non-documentary film to be given permission to shoot in Mecca. It will be followed by a Masterclass with the famous filmmaker.

After premiering at Pingyao, winning multiple awards at MAMI in October 2019 and travelling to Berlinale this week, one of the most celebrated Indian indies, Prateek Vats’ black comedy on a monkey repeller, Eeb Allay Ooo , will be competing with 15 other feature films at the Saudi festival. There will be cash awards totalling $2,50,000. Apart from India, the participating countries include Angola, Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Columbia, Egypt, France, Germany, Kosovo, Lebanon, Mongolia, Nigeria, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Spain and the United States.

The festival announced the programme details, competition lineup and industry initiatives of its first edition on Monday. Festival director Mahmoud Sabbagh and artistic director Hussain Currimbhoy from Saudi Arabia announced 107 films and shorts at a press conference on Monday. Mr. Sabbagh is well known for Barakah Meets Barakah , the country’s first film to premiere at Berlinale, while Mr. Currimbhoy has been a programmer at the Sundance Film Festival.

Cinema halls had been banned in Saudi Arabia since the early 1980s, and the first one came up after almost 35 years in April 2018 in Riyadh. The festival announced the opening of a new cinema complex with a 1,200-seat Coral theatre and four additional screens, one with 240 seats and the remaining three with 120 seats each.

‘Changing the Script’ is the festival’s theme. It aims to be a platform for “expression and discovery through film”, to “support and help in the growth of Saudi Arabia’s emerging film industry, inspire new audiences across the country, and contribute to a richer experience for Saudi Arabia’s changing society by encouraging a more open cultural exchange.”

Fittingly, the festival opens with a film on Saudi filmmaking: Faris Godus’ Shams al-Maaref (The Book of Sun). On the transformative impact of the internet, it is set in 2010, at the peak of the Saudi YouTube movement. A group of high school seniors and their teacher set out to produce a no-budget horror movie, “a wild adventure that will put their futures at risk”. The festival catalogue describes the film as “an insider’s look at the origins of cinema in Saudi Arabia and the energy that informs today’s scene.”

According to a festival press announcement, the advancement of women’s rights, the scourge of domestic violence, immigration and marginalised individuals are some of the focus areas in the competition entries. “We have a strong desire to push diversity, particularly in women’s position in public spaces, and for a more open society. The films present a strong look at what makes society function and the relationship between the individual, patriarchy and hegemony,” said Mr. Sabbagh.

No wonder then, one of the most looked-forward-to title in the New Saudi/New Cinema section is the ‘Untitled Omnibus Feature’, developed in partnership with Jeddah-based production house Cinepoetics Pictures. The portmanteau film has five Saudi women filmmakers helming the shorts: Hind Alfahhad, Jowaher Alamri, Noor Alameer, Sara Mesfer, and Fatima Al-Banawi. Award-winning Palestinian filmmaker Suha Arraf is the screenwriting supervisor for each of these.

Incidentally, in 2012, Haifaa Al Mansour became the first Saudi female filmmaker to direct one of the first Saudi Arabian feature films ever. Called ‘Wadjda’ after its protagonist, it was the first film ever to be filmed entirely in Saudi Arabia with an all-Saudi cast. A German/Saudi co-production, the film was produced with official permission and with support from the Saudi partner Rotana Studio. It was premiered at the Venice Film Festival. Keif as-Hal , released in 2006, is often billed as Saudi Arabia’s first film; however, it was shot in the United Arab Emirates, and the female lead was played by a Jordanian.

“We worked hard to ensure that the films being presented showcase Saudi Arabia’s emerging film industry, and encourage a more open cultural exchange. This isn’t just about exporting our stories; we are bringing different perspectives, new conversations into Saudi Arabia too,” said Mr. Sabbagh.

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