Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Film Festival stands as testimony to the kingdom’s unwavering drive to become a film and TV industry powerhouse amid regional conflicts, political turbulence and societal changes.
The Israel-Hamas war caused cancellations of several movie celebrations across the Arab world, including the Cairo Film Festival and Tunisia’s Carthage Film Days. But Saudi’s rapidly growing fest is forging ahead undeterred with its third edition set to run Nov. 30-Dec. 9 in Jeddah, on the Red Sea’s eastern shore.
In early October, after the war broke out, “we were assessing the situation day by day,” recalls pioneering Saudi producer and philanthropist Mohammed Al Turki, the event’s CEO, who notes that Red Sea organizers at that point reached out to filmmakers in the Middle East and North Africa region for feedback “and they almost had a heart attack when we told them we might not continue.” So it was decided to go forward, though some of the glitz will be scaled down “so we don’t seem tone deaf,” he says.
“It was clear that cancellation or postponement was not going to resolve anything regarding the conflict,” explains the fest’s managing director Shivani Pandya Malhotra. “For us, it’s really about providing a platform for the filmmakers, both regionally, as well as in Saudi,” she adds.
What’s indisputable is that — regardless of how many international talents and execs will be making the trek to Jeddah —the Red Sea’s upcoming third iteration will be the crowning moment of a year that has seen the Saudi film industry making great strides.
Shortly after the fest’s second edition wrapped last year, “Sattar,” an action comedy that had bowed at the fest, was released in Saudi cinemas where it ousted “Avatar: The Way of Water” from the top box office slot en route to scoring an eye-popping $11 million. That makes it the highest- grossing Saudi feature ever and among the biggest draws in the territory ever since a religion-related ban on filmmaking was lifted in late 2017.
In October, Saudi Arabia, which is now the Middle East’s top movie market and is expected to be worth $1 billion by 2030, held the inaugural edition of another industry event, the Saudi Film Confex, attended by regional and international producers and investors in the capital city of Riyadh.
But it’s the Red Sea Film Festival and its offshoots — market component Red Sea Souk and the Red Sea Lodge development program, plus the Red Sea Film Fund — that are taking the lead in fostering a local film culture while playing a fundamental role in Saudi’s concerted effort to build a film and TV industry from scratch.
“It’s our third year and we are starting to see some results,” says Al Turki, noting that the Red Sea Fund supported two of the three Saudi films that played at the Toronto Film Festival this year, marking a major breakthrough on the global fest circuit.
Ali Al-Kalthami’s Toronto bow, the bold comedy “Mandoob” (pictured) about a distraught delivery app driver in Riyadh who becomes a bootleg alcohol dealer, will now be launching in the Middle East at the Red Sea’s upcoming edition.
Another Saudi movie that will segue from Toronto to a Middle East bow in Jeddah is Meshal Aljaser’s “Naga,” a satirical thriller set in the 1970s about a young Saudi woman who has been taking drugs in the desert. Following a police raid, she must overcome various obstacles to reach her home before the curfew set by her punishment-prone father.
“We have 11 Saudi titles in the official selection this year, which is pretty amazing,” says Red Sea’s director of Arab programs and film classics, Antoine Khalife. “From the outset, I’ve wanted to show films that represented something new; something strong in terms of social, human and political themes, as well as being free from any type of self-censorship.”
Khalife is particularly proud that “Norah,” a film by first-time helmer Tawfik Alzaidi, set in 1990s Saudi Arabia, when conservatism was at its height, will be premiering in competition this year.
Shot in AlUla, the sprawling area of the Saudi desert that boasts an ancient city, “Norah” is about an artist named Nader who has given up painting and moved to a remote village to be a schoolteacher. There he intersects with the film’s titular character, an illiterate orphaned young woman who records her thoughts and memories into an old cassette recorder as she faces being trapped in an arranged marriage.
As for international films launching from Red Sea into the Middle East, the fest’s director of international programming, Kaleem Aftab, says this year they received lots more submissions and raised the bar on quality, pointing to the presence in competition of Indian-born auteur Tarsem Singh with romancer “Dear Jassi,” which premiered at Toronto.
Other auteurs from outside the region vying for top Red Sea awards — to be awarded by a jury headed by Baz Luhrmann — include Japanese master Ryusuke Hamaguchi with his Venice prizewinner “Evil Does Not Exist.”
Peppered through other Red Sea sections are Sofia Coppola’s “Priscilla”; Belgian-based Moroccan duo Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah’s flashy third feature “Gangsta”; British director James Marsh’s biopic about Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, “Dance First”; Argentinian director Rodrigo Moreno’s existential heist movie “The Delinquents”; Turkish legal drama “Hesitation Wound”; Swedish director Niclas Larsson’s “Mother, Couch,” starring Ewan McGregor and Ellen Burstyn; German director Timm Kröger’s metaphysical noir “The Universal Theory”; and the international bow of actor-turned director Jennifer Esposito’s drama “Fresh Kills,” about the women behind New York City mobsters in which she co-stars with Annabella Sciorra.
None of the selected titles will be censored for Saudi audiences, says Aftab. He notes that “we are allowed to push boundaries” in a region known for banning the occasional Hollywood title. This happened most recently with Sony’s “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse,” due to a poster in the background of a frame depicting a “Protect Trans Lives” flag.
That said, in making the Red Sea selection it’s clear that the region’s sensitivities have to be kept in mind.
“I don’t feel bad in saying that often I am led by what films have been picked by distributors in the region because we want to elevate those films,” adds Aftab, who notes that “we’ve been incredibly strict” this year about only selecting titles that are MENA premieres.
One exception to the fest’s premiere rule is a special screening Franco-Algerian actor/director Maïwenn’s Cannes opener “Jeanne du Barry,” starring Johnny Depp as Louis XV, that was partly financed by the Red Sea International fund and released in the region in September.
The Red Sea fund is also among backers of Depp-directed film “Modì,” about Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani that is currently shooting in Budapest, where Saudi film students are now gaining work experience on set.
“To me, growing up in Saudi Arabia after studying film in the U.S., this is something I never thought I would see happen,” says Al Turki, who at age 26 produced Richard Gere-starrer “Arbitrage” by Nicholas Jarecki during the time when Saudi still didn’t have movie theaters.
“It’s a dream come true for Saudi filmmakers to be on set with the likes of the biggest Hollywood stars, learning the craft of film,” he says. “Probably in the long-run they will be able to work as producers on an international scale.”
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