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The first ever Red Sea Film Festival in the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah kicks off the evening of Dec. 6, no small feat for a country that only opened its first cinema after a 35-year ban less than four years ago.
While the Red Sea Film Festival, originally due to launch in March 2020 but pushed back due to the pandemic, can’t claim to be the Saudi Arabia’s first film festival (that honor goes to the Saudi Film Festival, which had to operate in the shadows when it first launched in 2008), it’s undoubtedly the kingdom’s first major, full-fledged global cinema event, one led by an international team and with a broad span of films from across the region and the wider world.
The festival opens with Universal’s musical drama Cyrano from director Joe Wright, while other major titles include Netflix’s The Lost Daughter and Focus Features’ Belfast. A very well-stocked assortment of features from the Middle East and Africa includes the likes of Hany Abu Assad’s Palestinian drama Huda’s Saloon, Amira from Egyptian director Mohamed Diab and Panah Panahi’s Iranian road movie Hit the Road.
Among those being honored at the inaugural event is — somewhat appropriately — Haifaa al Mansour, Saudi Arabia’s most recognizable filmmaker since she first broke out internationally with the acclaimed 2013 drama Wadjda (the first movie to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia).
“I’m really proud. It’s a proud moment,” al Mansour says of the festival. “But I also feel like it’s very important to empower arts in that region. Saudi Arabia is the heart of the Islamic world and for long was very conservative and had ideologies circulating in society that weren’t very healthy when it came to women and empowering the arts.”
U.S.-based al Mansour, who has flown to Jeddah with her family, says she’s not surprised by the impressive number of Saudi films — both shorts and features — in the Red Sea selection, claiming there’s a been a dramatic “fostering” of local voices.
“There’s a lot of stories and a lot of young people who want to tell their stories,” she notes. “It’s exciting to see them coming forward and having a place to tell the world.”
In addition to receiving her honor from the festival, al Mansour will present a masterclass and says she’s particularly looking forward to speaking to young female filmmakers.
“I just want them to understand that they can do it,” she says. “And it is important to believe in themselves. It’s hard for women in the Middle East, especially young women, to feel they can have a voice and that they can really achieve things. It is anywhere in the world, but in the Middle East is very difficult. So I am really excited to meet young Saudi filmmakers.”
The Red Sea Film Festival is stepping into almost the exact same space in the calendar left by the Dubai International Film Festival, which had its last event in 2017 (the announcement that it was closing came, coincidentally, the same week in April 2018 that the first cinema opened in Saudi Arabia). Over 14 editions, DIFF became the leading festival in the region, attracting major names from around the world and providing a vital platform for local talent. Its loss was felt across the Middle East filmmaking world.
Like many in the region, al Mansour — who brought Wadjda to DIFF in 2013 having begun the film’s development years earlier at the event’s smaller sibling, the Gulf Film Festival — says she hopes the Red Sea Film Festival helps fill the significant gap left by Dubai.
“Absolutely. And I think it should be a place that invests in local talent,” she says. “A lot of people want to hear voices coming from the Middle East, from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. People haven’t heard our stories — they’ve been very absent. But there are amazing stories and people want to tell them. It’s just about having the access and the training and knowing how to tell them.”
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