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Anyone in the industry who attended Cannes, Venice or Toronto this year is likely aware of the Red Sea Film Festival. Thanks to a marketing campaign that has included billboards in airports, advertisements across the trades and sponsorship of star-studded events, the event in the coastal Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah has been generating noise for its second edition.
Set to launch in March 2020, just two years after cinemas opened in Saudi Arabia after being banned for several decades, the inaugural event was canceled by organizers eight days before it was due to open, making it one of the first festival casualties of COVID-19. The first edition was pushed to late 2021, only to then be hit by the omicron variant of the coronavirus. While concerns about human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia and the fallout from the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi may have already had many in the industry questioning whether to attend, a large portion of those who were due to fly to Jeddah canceled at the last minute (including director Joe Wright, whose musical drama Cyrano was the curtain raiser).
But despite the issues, for Saudi producer and festival CEO Mohammed Al-Turki (who produced 2014’s 99 Homes starring Andrew Garfield), the event was a success, especially in seeing local audiences gather and enjoy the screenings. For its sophomore year, Al-Turki is expecting far more international visitors, and together with his team has built a lineup of 2022 hits. Alongside opener What’s Love Got to Do With It?, there are awards season hopefuls The Banshees of Inisherin, Decision to Leave, Empire of Light and Triangle of Sadness, plus an assortment of Saudi features (seven in total, including fest closer Valley Road). As he explains, Saudi Arabia is in the midst of a significant cultural shift, and the Red Sea Festival is all “part of a plan to flourish this industry.”
How would you say your first edition of the festival went?
I think overall it went great. We welcomed 32,000 people over the course of 10 days. And you know, for me being a Saudi, it was very surreal. Five years ago, I never thought I would be working in the film industry in Saudi Arabia to run a film festival. There were a lot of moment where I’d be on the red carpet, just looking around, seeing the audience engaging, enjoying the film and laughing together at certain jokes, and just to see women wearing dresses and gowns on the carpet. It’s such a cultural shift in Saudi… we’re progressing at such a fast rate.
Any lessons learned from your inaugural event?
We’re learning lessons every single day. But festivals are always chaotic, and I’ve spoken to many festival directors worldwide and every year there are different challenges and obstacles.
You’ve been heavily promoting the film fest around the world, spending a huge amount on advertising at all other major film festivals. What’s behind this push?
I actually had a moment at Venice airport, and wherever I looked, I saw adverts for either the Red Sea Film Festival or the Saudi Film Commission, and they were back-to-back ads. And in Toronto, all the magazine dailies had Red Sea on their covers. We are a market that should be seen and deserve the visibility. But it’s also about handpicking Saudi talent and bringing them with us to festivals, introducing our culture and our people to the world. It’s all part of a plan to flourish this industry.
You were going to open with a Saudi film for the 2020 edition that was sadly cancelled. Since then you’ve opened with Western titles. You’ve got a Saudi film closing this year’s edition, but do you think we’re far off from having a local film as a curtain raiser again?
We were actually in talks to open with a Saudi film this year, but since we’re an international film festival we’re decided not to go with what country the film’s from, but on the topic. What’s Love Got to Do With It? is a very light-hearted cross-cultural romantic comedy and we wanted to open the festival with a happy film.
What’s the response been from within Saudi? As you said, it would have been almost absurd for the country to have had a major film festival just a few years ago.
The Saudi public has been experiencing such a huge change over the last five years. Honestly, you leave the city for a few weeks and it’s changed when you come back, and now when I drive to the office I see billboards of concerts and films. It just tells you that you don’t know what to expect anymore. But we had a huge attendance last year, and most were from the region and Saudi. We’re a young country — the majority of the population is below the age of 35 — and there’s a huge excitement for films. But when we launched, it was educational, because people didn’t know what a film festival was, but they came and learned and there’s a lot more awareness this year.
There’s been some debate from the international industry about whether to attend. Do you feel that attitude is changing?
It’s always a challenge. There’s a huge misconception in the media. I think it’s going to change, but we’re not going to change people’s opinions overnight. Also, I feel like we need to educate the West. We meet with a lot of different agencies, studios and publicists, and there was one meeting in L.A. about a month ago that blew my mind. It was a fairly reputable PR company that represents a lot of Hollywood A-listers, and halfway through, this American publicist said that it had been really sad that this woman had been killed by the religious police for not wearing her hijab correctly. I was like, “That was Iran.” And she said, “Oh, is Tehran not Saudi?” So another thing we have to deal with is ignorance.
There’s recently been a number of films blocked from release in Saudi Arabia for LGBTQ references. Has this restricted the films you can show at the fest?
We’re open to showing all sorts of films, and there’s a zero censorship policy, so I don’t think it has impacted our programmers.
So it would have been OK for you to screen Tár, for example?
We actually wanted to show Tár, but I don’t think we got it. We also wanted to show The Whale, but A24 didn’t give it to us.
The Qatar soccer World Cup is on at the same time. Is that going to be competition?
We’re not competing with the World Cup. Last year were at the same time as the Saudi Formula 1, and people who came to that stayed and attend the festival on opening night. Since we’ve been organizing this festival, we’ve realized that there are a lot of routes to Doha [the capital of Qatar]. So I think a lot of people who will be coming to the festival will go to Qatar as well. It’s actually very beneficial.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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