Saudi Arabia is a country that had no cinemas for 30 years. The fact that it is now hitting headlines with an – albeit slowly – booming film industry, and a first of its kind, annual Red Sea International Film Festival offering millions of dollars in funding and support for Arab directors, speaks volumes about the transformative moment that the film industry in the kingdom – and certainly the film industries in the entirety of the Arab world (i.e. Sudan, Syria, etc.) – is currently experiencing.
The Festival is born of a context at the crossroad of cultures and aims to reflect the world we share today.
That moment is precisely what the Red Sea Film Festival both embodies and highlights; from its 2020 theme of ‘changing the script’, to its latest release of a show-stopping poster depicting Saudi ballerina Samira Al Khamis as though emerging from the sea – a symbolic image representing the winds of change sweeping across the Arab world and specifically in Saudi Arabia in terms of its arts and culture scene (and the centrality of women’s roles in that scene). And it is certainly gearing up to be one of the largest, most dynamic film events in the region.
What It Is & How It Started
The festival’s flagship edition is taking place this year from March 12 until March 21 in the Old Town of the coastal city of Jeddah – a UNESCO world heritage site – and the 10-day event will see tens of film screenings, panels and masterclasses delivered by some of the biggest names in the film industry right now, and workshops.
Saudi Arabia is a country that had no cinema for 30 years.
The festival serves as one of the pillars of the Red Sea Film Foundation, the first officially mandated non-profit, independent foundation promoting film culture in Saudi Arabia. Established in 2018 by the Kingdom’s first Minister of Culture, Prince Badr bin Farhan Al Saud, the foundation, currently under the leadership of director, producer and pioneer of the Saudi film industry Mahmoud Sabbagh, is dedicated to “national storytellers, distinctive local narratives and developing a sustainable and active [film] ecosystem,” as the foundation’s website writes.
The Red Sea festival is also headed by Sabbagh, while former Sundance fest documentary programmer Hussain Currimbhoy is artistic director, and the managing director is the Dubai fest’s former top exec Shivani Pandya Malhotra. Aside from the festival, the Foundation also has a platform that offers yearly grants, mentoring and education programs for filmmakers: the Red Sea Lodge.
Before then, no such initiative existed in the country. Financing was difficult to get, and infrastructure was practically non-existent (having no cinemas in the country was a primary culprit of the stagnation in the industry). In spite of that, films were being made. And this is the first all-inclusive platform and event that serves to showcase and reward these efforts, and to bring filmmakers together in Saudi Arabia, in support of its industry. Adding infrastructure in support of the festival, the Foundation is also inaugurating a 1200-seat capacity Coral Theater, and a festival complex containing four more theaters, one at 240 seater capacity, and the remaining three taking up 120 seats each.
The official poster for the inaugural edition of the festival features an image shot by Syrian-born artist Osama Esid of Saudi ballerina Samira Alkhamis emerging from the sea, indicative of the wave of change in the region. Courtesy of Red Sea Film Festival.
An extension of the festival also serving the purpose of gathering industry insiders together for discussions and network is the Red Sea Souk, which will run from March 13-16, partially in tandem with the Public festival, and which will serve as a space to host distributors, sales agents, and producers. French industry veteran Julie Bergeron will be running the market.
The festival will take place in Jeddah's Old Town, a UNESCO world heritage site. Photo courtesy of Red Sea Film Festival.
“The Festival is born of a context at the crossroad of cultures and aims to reflect the world we share today. Dedicated to inclusivity, the Foundation is the carrier of this vibrant cultural legacy – through its key initiatives, it forges dialogues between the past and the future, and between diverse international perspectives,” the description continues. True to the statement, the Festival has already – ahead of its first event – launched a number of initiatives dedicated to promoting inclusivity and to embracing this unique, transformative moment between past, present and future where the festival rests.
From Experimental Saudi Films to Projects from the Global South: Main Programmes & Films in Development
The festival is divided into a total of 9 programme sections, each focusing on a branch of film, allowing a space for a wide range of voices that spans generations, genders and ethnicities. Screening a total of around 100 films, the programmes include a round-up of ‘best of the year’ movies, which will present international festival hits and critics’ favourites; a category titled ‘Tajreeb’, providing a platform for experimental, ‘punk’ filmmakers who go against the grain of the industry’s conventions; and a shorts’ competition. The jury for the shorts competition will be helmed by Tim Redfort from Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival, who will be joined by by Tunisian actress Najla Ben Abdallah, and Saudi screenwriter and cinema pioneer Ahmad Almulla.
In the past year since it was launched, the Lodge, which is sort of like a year-round film incubator, selected 12 projects...for an intensive, year-long lab, which guides directors, producers, and scriptwriters throughout the entire filmmaking process.
There’s also a ‘New Saudi/New Cinema’ programme screening feature-length arthouse, independent films by the most vital emerging filmmakers of the region, that will be launching in tandem with the international festivals’ circuit of 2020; an ‘out of competition’ section for the international filmmaking icons and premiere films sourced from the festival circuit; an ‘immersive cinema’ category, which will include digital experiments, holographic experiences, and new, alternative forms of film and art; and a retrospective and classics section will honour and present rare films by two pioneers of Arab cinema – Egypt’s Khairy Beshara and Saudi photographer and cinematographer Safouh Naamani.
Finally, the films ‘in competition’ will largely consist of innovative, independent projects from the Global South, of which the winning projects – chosen by a jury headed by three-time Oscar winner Oliver Stone - will be awarded with various ‘Yusr’ prizes, the ‘golden’ one being the top prize, offering $100,000. The films competing include Saudi director Haifaa Mansour's The Perfect Candidate, Spanish cinematographer Èric Motjer's Beirut, La Vie en Rose and Palestinian-American Zeina Durra's Luxor.
Also premiering at the festival are the two winners of the mammoth Tamheed Fund, which is one of the initiatives launched by the Red Sea International Film Festival. The fund aims to support feature films in KSA made by Saudi Arabian filmmakers and focuses on “projects with authentic local stories presented in innovative visual styles and daring narration tools.”
One of the most exciting ventures announced by the festival is an anthology feature that consists of five short films by Saudi female directors.
One of the winners of the $500,000 Tamheed grant is The Book of Sun (Shams Al Ma’arif), directed by Faris Godus. The film, which will be opening the festival, tells the story of Hussam, a teenager about to graduate high school, who is distracted by the wave of Saudi YouTube content creation at its peak in 2010, later deciding to make a no-budget feature film putting his education future at risk – a very meta film about filmmaking in the particular context of Saudi Arabia.
View this post on Instagram
The second winner is Forty Years and a Night (Arba’oun Aman w Laila), directed by Mohammed Alholayyil, which focuses on a family deeply threatened by a series of secrets – heretofore hidden – that arise on Eid al-Fitr, putting their relationships and stability to the test.
Masterclasses by Major Industry Names
In recent news, the festival announced that it's bringing a star-studded crew of directors to deliver masterclasses. Oscar winner Spike Lee - memorable for his 1990 production Do the Right Thing and the 1992 iconic feature Malcolm X, which will be screened on March 13 - will deliver a masterclass in the theme of 'Transmissions.'
Also delivering masterclasses under that theme is another Oscar-winner and The Exorcist director William Friedkin, American director Abel Ferrera, and Egyptian filmmakers Khairy Beshara and Yousry Nasrallah. The classes offer a particularly exciting prospect for young, aspiring filmmakers, who get to then learn firsthand from veteran figures in the industry.
The Red Sea Lodge & Red Sea Souk
In the past year since it was launched, the Lodge, which is sort of like a year-round film incubator, selected 12 projects – 6 from Saudi Arabia and 6 from the Arab world at large – for an intensive, year-long lab, which guides directors, producers, and scriptwriters throughout the entire filmmaking process, from developing the script, all the way through the post-production processes, including sales, financing and audience engagement. Collaborating with Italian Torino Film Lab to help bring an experienced hand into their mentoring process, the Red Sea Lodge offers an award of $500,000 to the two winning projects, which will then see their world premiere at the 2021 edition of the festival.
The projects chosen for this year include Practicing Polygamy by US-trained Saudi director Malak Qouta, Inchalla It’s a Boy, by Jordanian director Amjad AlRasheed, and Scheherazade Goes Silent by Palestinian director Amira Diab.
The aforementioned Red Sea Souk acts as another industry arm for the festival, presenting an opportunity for all industry insiders to gather in one space and experience a comprehensive film networking (and marketing; hence, the name Souk) event. It will include an exhibition area, where filmmakers, professionals and even film-related business can advertise new works and projects in-the-making. There will also be industry talks running throughout the Souk, dedicated to discussing and exploring new trends and models in the industry.
There will also be industry talks running throughout the Souk, dedicated to discussing and exploring new trends and models in the industry.
The Project Market (part of the Souk) is where film pitches will occur; 20 teams from across the region – including the twelve Red Lodge selections – will present their projects and become eligible for production awards, and film insiders can engage with them in one-on-one meetings as part of the market. The Souk will also include a short film market, a ‘Jeddah focus’ programme offering funds for five yet-to-be-announced films from the Arab world, and two designated talent days – March 17 and 18 – which will see a full programme of workshops delivered to Saudi national directors, scriptwriters and producers, powered by MBC Edutain.
A Union of the Past and the Present: The Preservation of Old Saudi Films
Although the infrastructure in Saudi Arabia had certainly been lacking, that does not erase its film history – but it is a history largely forgotten by the rest of the world. The foundation has restored and will be presenting – some for the first time ever – a total of 11 classic and retrospective films. Nine of them are by Khairy Beshara, who will be honoured at and attending the festival.
Khairy Beshara on the set of The Collar and the Bone, with actress Sherihan and cinematographer Tarek El-Telmissany. Photo courtesy of Red Sea Film Festival.
The films include some of the most famous to come out of Egypt, including The Collar and the Bracelet (1986) and Ice Cream in Gleam (1992) – both of which are representations of Beshara’s particularly huge role in introducing neo-realist films in the Arab world in the 1980s, and which have never been screened in Saudi Arabia.
The foundation has restored and will be presenting – some for the first time ever – a total of 11 classic and retrospective films.
The other two films screening at the festival as part of its retrospective are never-before-seen documentaries by late Saudi cinematographer Safouh Naamani, who was one of the pioneers of colour photography in the 1960s. The foundation was able to develop and restore five reels of raw film that belonged to Naamani at a film restoration lab in Munich, Germany, to edit into a short 30-minute film – Glimpses of Jeddah.
Saffouh Naamani was a pioneer of colour photography in the 1950s and '60s. He used his camera to photograph and film the urban transformations in Jeddah as they occurred in real-time. Photos courtesy of Red Sea Film Festival.
The film delves into the urban transformations that took place in the city throughout the 1950s and ’60s – all from the lens of Naamani’s 16mm camera – including the creation of Gold Street in 1964, the coastline along the ancient port of Punt, and commercial life in the port of Jeddah. It presents a rare, panoramic view of the very city that will become home to the festival, opening up discussions around the space of the city and the urban transformations it has experienced.
An Omnibus Women-Led Feature & Gender-Focused Films
One of the most exciting ventures announced by the festival is an anthology feature that consists of five short films by Saudi female directors. The feature is woman - and Saudi - centered, presenting a diverse range of Saudi women’s voices, hailing from across its different cities and from different backgrounds. Hind AlFahhad, Jowaher Alamri, Noor Alameer, Sara Mesfer, and Fatima Al-Banawi are the five directors joining forces on ‘Untitled Omnibus Feature’, and award-winning Palestinian filmmaker Suha Arraf is screenwriting supervisor on the portmanteau film.
The feature is woman - and Saudi - centered, presenting a diverse range of Saudi women’s voices, hailing from across its different cities and from different backgrounds.
About this first of its kind experience, Alfahhad commented in a press release, “it has been a unique experience participating in a film alongside fellow Saudi women directors, all telling stories around womanhood in distinctive ways." Noor Alameer also added, “the process of making this film, as a writer and director, was challenging. But seeing the idea come to life was the most satisfying feeling.”
With this, and the balance of men and women in most of their programmes and funding initiatives – a third of the twelve selected projects for the Lodge are by women – the Red Sea Festival’s diversity is one of its laudable features, emphasised both at the surface level – with film choices and the poster for instance – and at the deeper level of meaningful participation and guided opportunity offered to women through grants and mentorship.
You can get your badge and accreditation to access the Red Sea Film Festival and Red Sea Souk through here.
Main image is a still from Faris Godus' The Book of Sun, which will be opening the festival.