Red Sea Film Festival Founder Talks Pushing Cultural Boundaries: "We Are Reclaiming Our Narratives"

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Jeddah, which will host the fest from March 12 to 21.

Saudi Arabia's Red Sea Film Festival in the coastal city of Jeddah is the latest effort by local filmmakers to break free from the country's restrictive past and expand its burgeoning film sector.

It was just four years ago that Berlin hosted the world premiere of Barakah Meets Barakah, the debut feature from Saudi director Mahmoud Sabbagh. Not only was the groundbreaking film the first from the kingdom to screen at the Berlinale, but it was also considered the country’s first-ever romantic comedy, deploying humor as a charming yet pointed tool to highlight the challenges young Saudis face in finding love.

Saudi Arabia has experienced several major cinematic firsts since then — the opening of the first movie theaters since a 35-year ban was lifted, its first ever pavilion in Cannes and the first Saudi film from its new fund (Haifaa al-Mansour’s Perfect Candidate), to name but a few. And now Sabbagh is pushing at the cultural boundaries of his fast-changing country once more.

The inaugural Red Sea Film Festival — Sabbagh’s brainchild — kicks off in the coastal city of Jeddah on March 12. While it’s not the kingdom’s first film event — that honor goes to the Saudi Film Festival, which had to operate mostly in the shadows until recent developments — it’s certainly the first with a significant international outreach, and the first to come under the auspices of the newly launched Ministry of Culture.

"For me, this festival really means that we are reclaiming our narratives," Sabbagh explains. "We’re no longer shy from expressing ourselves. We are no longer shy from discussing our issues and also inviting others to come and see how we live."

The Gulf has had a mixed record when it comes to film festivals. The Abu Dhabi Film Festival and Doha Tribeca Film Festival both launched with great gusto and then fizzled, as did the Dubai International Film Festival, which shuttered in 2018 after 14 editions. But while those events strove to attract A-list talent and star-studded Hollywood titles alongside their more local fare, the Red Sea Film Festival is less focused on its global red carpet appeal.

"We’re a young population — 70 percent is under 30. And a lot of aspiring filmmakers went to study abroad and are now back as professional filmmakers and want to tell stories and be part of the industry," says Sabbagh. "So for us, our main pillar is to really be part of that and to actually realize that in our festival, which is really about the grassroots reflecting an industry."

With this in mind, Red Sea’s opening-night film is local production The Book of Sun, a drama set during the period in the early 2010s when young Saudis became some of the region’s biggest YouTube personalities (largely due to the restrictive nature of public life). The film comes from director Fares Qodus and his producer brother Sohayb Qodus, who themselves were caught up in this wave, having come to fame as part of the media collective Telfaz11, responsible for viral hits such as the No Woman, No Drive video in 2013 and with more than 2 billion YouTube views collectively. "You can’t have a better film that resembles the current moment like this," says Sabbagh.

While the past two years may have seen some seismic changes in Saudi’s cinema industry and in wider society, the country’s efforts to reform under Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman have largely been overshadowed on the world stage by scandals such as the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and the continued suppression of dissidents. Whether this impacts the Red Sea Fest’s efforts to attract international visitors remains to be seen (although Sabbagh says they’re inviting "a lot of people," and have already confirmed Oliver Stone as jury head, and special honorees in former French culture minister Jack Lang, Busan Film Festival founder Kim Dong-ho and Morelia Film Festival founder Daniela Michel).

While he hopes to return to the director’s chair once the festival has drawn to a close on March 21, Sabbagh says he’s been treating the event as a "big film" that he’s producing. "Sometimes I feel that pain that I’m not making films, but that being said, I also feel content that I’m helping build something profound for the industry and community," he says. "It’s really humbling to serve the public and be part of the change and do something that resonates forever."

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Feb. 21 daily issue at the Berlin Film Festival.