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Despite the rise of the omicron variant, the first edition of the Red Sea International Film Festival went ahead as planned and will close on Dec. 15, in the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah, without any of its events having been canceled over pandemic concerns.
The inaugural edition of the country’s first full-fledged film festival looked initially to have been hit by a second helping of bad timing amid the ongoing global pandemic. The event’s original dates in March 2020 saw it postponed at the start of the first wave and it seemed like its 2021 relaunch attempt would be struck by the new highly-contagious COVID-19 variant, first detected in Africa less than two weeks before opening night on Dec. 6.
But the festivities rolled out despite several filmmakers and guests cancelling their visits due to growing concerns — including Joe Wright and cast members from the curtain-raising film, Cyrano — and the Red Sea Film Festival managed to enjoy its historic first edition without any major glitches. (Meanwhile, the Cyrano premiere in Los Angeles was postponed due to the changing COVID landscape on Dec. 15.)
While there may have been a few absences, the opening night boasted a decent slice of glamour, guests including Clive Owen, Anthony Mackie, Vincent Cassel, Clive Owen, Hilary Swank, Catherine Deneuve, Stephen Dorff and Irina Shayk. Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux was in attendance, while Saudi Arabia’s pioneering first female filmmaker, Haifaa al Mansour, was honored with a career award.
It wasn’t all plain sailing, sadly, with the festival’s own creative director Edouard Waintrop not making the trip to Jeddah. But this wasn’t COVID-19 related, with the former Cannes Directors’ Fortnight chief having fallen ill the weekend before.
Across 10 days, the Red Sea Film Festival screened 138 feature films and short from 67 countries, including 27 films by Saudi directors. Speaking to THR on the eve of the event, Al Mansour said it was this local strand that made her particularly proud. “I’m excited that there are a lot of stories and a lot of young people who want to tell their stories,” she said.
Naturally, the festival was used as a platform for several announcements from Saudi Arabia’s nascent film industry. Chief among them was the local Film Commission revealing its first incentive scheme for local and international productions, a cash rebate set at a highly competitive 40 percent of total qualifying spend (higher than regional counterparts Jordan and the UAE). The news landed as the cameras continued rolling on the two biggest films the country has ever welcomed in Desert Warrior and Kandahar.
At the festival’s Yusr awards — a ceremony that somehow attracted the likes of Naomi Campbell and Ed Westwick — Levan Koguashvili’s Brighton 4th, Georgia’s Oscar entry this year, claimed the Best Film prize, with Hamzah K. Jamjoom’s Rupture winning Best Saudi Film and Egyptian title You Resemble Me from director Dina Amer landing the Audience Award. Meanwhile, the jury prize was awarded to Iranian helmer Panah Panahi’s Cannes-bowing family road movie Hit The Road, which also won the Red Sea’s best cinematic contribution award.
“This has been an extraordinary experience,” said Italian director and writer Giuseppe Tornatore, who led the Red Sea features competition jury. “We have been moved, provoked and inspired by these films, and it has demonstrated the exceptional filmmaking talent and compelling stories from the Arab world, Africa and Asia.”
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