Nearly four years after Saudi Arabia’s first movie theater in more than 35 years opened in April 2018, the kingdom’s first film festival is underway in Jeddah.
The 10-day Red Sea International Film Festival is hosting stars, talents and film industry professionals from all over the world, including French icon Catherine Deneuve and leading lights of the Egyptian cinema such as actresses Yousra, Laila Elwi, Hend Sabry (a dual citizen of Egypt and her home country Tunisia) and Ruby, actor Maged El-Kadwany and director Marwan Hamed.
Cyrano, a 2021 musical romantic drama film directed by Briton Joe Wright, opened the festival on December 6, while lighthearted Egyptian ensemble film Barra El Manhag, with a cast led by El-Kadwany and Ruby, will close things out on December 15.
The festival program comprises 138 long and short films from 67 countries, including 25 world premieres, 48 Arab premieres and 17 Gulf region premieres.
In addition to the Red Sea competition for long and short films, red carpet events, and special performances, the festival will host a number of programs, including: “New Saudi Cinema,” “Treasures of the Red Sea” and “Masterpieces of Arabia.”
The official competition for both long and short films includes the most important film creations from Asia, Africa and the Arab world. The festival will screen 18 films in the short film competition and 15 films in the long film competition, competing for the Al-Yusr awards presented by the jury on December 13.
The festival is honoring Saudi director and producer Haifaa al-Mansour and her debut feature film, Wadjda, the first feature film filmed entirely in Saudi Arabia. Wadjda premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2012 and won many honors around the world, including a nomination for best foreign film at the 2014 BAFTA Awards.
The red carpet shows saw the artists dressed very modestly by international standards, in respect of the customs and traditions in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi artist Badr Hassan told The Media Line, “Times have changed. Even the idea of holding such a festival would have been impossible several years ago. Now we see it on the ground.
“It was really difficult to work on such a festival, to invite all these artists from different parts of the world, and to attract them to the kingdom,” he said.
“The entertainment industry in the kingdom will be huge. There are thousands of young cadres seeking to work in this field, and we are also striving for that. Previously, it was difficult to work, but now the industry will be organized and supported by the state,” he continued.
“There will be no more obstacles. What has happened during the years of [Crown Prince] Mohammed bin Salman’s rule in Saudi Arabia, it would have taken decades if not for his time in power. We are now living in the best times of our lives in Saudi Arabia ever,” Hassan said.
Saudi journalist Khaled al-Dosari told The Media Line, “It is a historic moment that cannot be described. I have attended several festivals globally, and I did not even dream that this thing could be held in Saudi Arabia. The feeling is indescribable.”
“Now things have changed, there are many opportunities, and great creations by Saudi artists will soon appear on the scene. I will not talk about them; they will speak for themselves,” he continued.
“Saudi Arabia is fertile ground for artistic production. There is a terrain unlike any other in the world. In the past, we had several [television] series and they were subject to strict control; now there is cinematic artistic production and a specialized festival, and there will certainly be international works of art,” Dosari said.
Osama al-Shehri, a rising Saudi artist, told The Media Line, “My father would not accept the idea of us watching a movie on TV, and now we are talking about a film festival in Saudi Arabia. It is a great thing.”
“The organization of the festival is wonderful, and huge by all standards. We are witnessing the presence of many international artists and great Arab stars. They are here [in the kingdom] not just to perform hajj or umrah pilgrimages, but for a cultural and cinematic activity that is very good for Saudi Arabia,” he said.
“The festival management sought to provide everything that could be presented, and there are now large bodies and institutions that will pump millions into the film industry in Saudi Arabia. The festival is distinguished in its first session. The prizes are not large, but they are good for the first edition of the festival,” he added.
“It is unimaginable, in Riyadh there is the Riyadh Season [a city-wide celebration first held in 2019], and dozens of concerts by great singers, and in Jeddah there is a film festival, and there are other seasons, parties, entertainment and art [in the kingdom],” Shehri said.