Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea International Film Festival (December 1 to 10) kicks off its second edition in the port city of Jeddah this week.
The event unfolds five years to the week that news first broke that the country was lifting its 35-year cinema ban as part of a wider strategy to open up its society and the economy.
The 2021 inaugural edition unfolded amid uncertainty for both organizers and attendees. There were also a handful of last-minute glitches including the emergence of the more virulent Covid-19 Omicron strain and the no-show of figurehead artistic director Edouard Waintrop.
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One of the biggest challenges was convincing film and media professionals from outside the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to attend amid accusations that Saudi Arabia is using culture to deflect from its human rights abuses such as the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
Most of those who did make the trip felt they had witnessed a moment in history as pioneering Saudi Arabian director Haifaa Al Mansour took to the stage to the sound of high-pitch approval from local women in the audience on the opening night.
A year on, there’s a sense the festival is charting different waters.
Some industry professionals continue to question the ethics of travelling to Saudi Arabia but judging by the roster of high-profile guests scheduled to attend Red Sea’s second edition, the mood is thawing, while the country’s film and TV industries continue to expand.
Deadline talked to Red Sea’s managing director Shivani Pandya, CEO Mohammed Al Turki and Jomana R. Al-Rashid, chairman umbrella body the Red Sea Foundation on the eve of the second edition
DEADLINE: How has the process of putting this edition together been different from launching the inaugural edition?
SHIVANI PANDYA: Looking back, we didn’t know how things would pan out, but we had great audiences and got great feedback. We’re building on the foundations that we laid last year. For us, it’s all about the industry, we’re very focused on that. Everything that we do is about developing the local industry, being a platform for the regional industry and now, broadening our geographical reach beyond the Arab world into Africa.
The format of the festival is very similar to last year. We’ve added one section, New Visions, which is a place for slightly more open-ended films and different kinds of filmmakers. That’s the only real change on the programming side.
On the Souk (industry) side, we’ve kept the format very similar. We’ve enhanced the project market with more projects from Africa and elevated the level of the conference and its panel discussions. We also saw there was a lot of engagement with the one-on-one masterclasses, so we’ve bought in a bigger In-Conversations program, with a really eclectic selection of people from all over the world.
DEADLINE: Last year the festival had to tweak its dates to accommodate the inaugural Saudi Grand Prix in Jeddah, this year the second edition is taking place at the same time as the FIFA World Cup, from November 20 to December 18, in neighboring Qatar. Do you fear cinema will end-up competing with soccer?
JOMANA R. AL-RASHID: The fact that everyone’s coming to the region for the World Cup is an opportunity for us to tap into because Saudi Arabia is less than an hour’s flight away. It’s a great opportunity and we’re taking full advantage of it. Football and cinema are universal languages that help bridge gaps and bring cultures together.
DEADLINE: Has it been easier to get people to come to the Red Sea this year? There’s still reticence in the industry outside the MENA region about travelling to Saudi Arabia, but you’ve got a number of high-profile U.S. and European guests such as the jury president Oliver Stone and Luca Guadagnino who will participate in an In-conversation event…
MOHAMMED AL TURKI: Last year was a bit more challenging because Omicron hit us a week before our start date. But we ended up welcoming 32,000 people over the 10 days. And we had a good level of international attendance considering it was our first year. With Giuseppe Tornatore as the president of the jury.
This year, as you mentioned, Luca Guadagnino is going to be part of the festival. We’re going to unveil a few more international filmmakers and actors over the coming days, but we’re just very cautious in terms of announcing.
There are a lot of sensitivities when it comes to the Middle East, in particular Saudi and the situation that’s happening right now with Qatar and all the negative press.
I agree with the FIFA president (Gianni Infantino), you know, when he mentioned there’s a bit of Western hypocrisy [In opening remarks to the World Cup, Infantino said Western countries are ill-placed to give “moral lessons” due to their colonial histories]. If you’re going to point out all the human rights issues in the world, why are you pointing them out at a cultural event like a film festival or a sporting event like the World Cup?
In the end, I’m a filmmaker. I couldn’t work in Saudi before because there were no cinemas. I had to move to the U.S. I was able to move back to Saudi in 2017 after the lifting of the cinema ban.
I never thought in a million years that I would be the CEO of a film festival in Saudi.
I have all these moments of excitement: witnessing a red carpet; looking at the amount of growth in cinemas, we have created 580 screens in Saudi since 2017 and it’s growing; seeing other developments like the Film Commission announcing its cash rebate and having stars like Gerard Butler coming here to shoot Kandahar or Sir Ben Kingsley, Desert Warrior.
From that perspective, in terms of attendance, it’s always going to be a challenge, but we’re progressing, we are going down the right path.
There’s a lot of ignorance in the world and we need to educate a lot of people. It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s going to be brick by brick. I hope, this year and in the years to come, we will welcome more people and be able to change the narrative.
DEADLINE: One of the flash points between the West and the Gulf countries is LGBTQ+ rights. This tension has been put under the spotlight during the World Cup in Qatar. The Red Sea’s first edition had an inclusive feel and even showed works touching on gay issues. How do you at the festival approach this issue?
AL TURKI: The festival has a zero-censorship policy. We want artists to feel they can show their creative works in their entirety. We’re pushing the boundaries and we show all sorts of films. We’re an international festival, and I don’t think you can have an international film festival if you’re going to have censorship – that doesn’t go hand in hand. So, we’re happy that we’re able to have that in our festival.
But in terms of what you mentioned on LGBT, we get this question from a lot of people in the U.S. while in Colorado five people were recently shot in an LGBT bar. So, it’s kind of strange. They’re asking us, but they can also look at what’s happening in their own country.
AL-RASHID: To pick up on what Mohammed was saying, ultimately, our objective is to programme the best films with no agenda. And our programmers have once again curated a diverse selection of over 130 films from 61 countries. And that’s really what we take pride in. We want the festival to become a platform for connecting cultures, sharing creativity, for empowering young talent from different parts of the world, and not just limited to Saudi Arabia or the region.
We’re trying to become a platform for those stories that haven’t been told, and for the talent that hasn’t been empowered. So yes, we are going to showcase the best films from different parts of the world, with the creations of people from different walks of life.
DEADLINE: On the question of programming, last year, artistic director Edouard Waintrop quietly left the festival in the weeks leading up to the inaugural edition and you’ve never replaced him. Why haven’t you appointed a new artistic director?
AL TURKI: Honestly, we have an incredible programming team. Our focus is on Arab and international films. We have our Arab programmer Antoine Khalife and then we have Kaleem Aftab, who does the international selection. Watching them work together is literally wonderful. So, I think them together are an added value. It feels like we have two artistic directors, rather than one.
DEADLINE: One of the criticisms levelled at the Red Sea’s inaugural edition, especially by regional film professionals was that the inaugural edition of the festival was too focused on the red carpet and was paying for guests to attend who had very little to do with the region’s burgeoning film industry. What’s your response to that kind of criticism?
AL TURKI: The Red Sea is no different than any other international film festival. That’s what we’re striving to be. We look to the Cannes Film Festival and Venice Film Festival as our platform. This year, we’re excited to have the exact same sponsorship as Cannes. Our beauty sponsor is L’Oréal, and our jewellery sponsor is Chopard. To have that in our second year is great, and the fact it happened a few months ago enabled us to focus more on the aspects of the film side.
We’re going to have a great balance. A lot of festivals have brand ambassadors from luxury brands, and jewellery brands and part of their deal is to have paid activations. I don’t think we’re different from any of those festivals.
AL-RASHID: I received a lot of requests from friends in Hollywood and the U.K., as well as producers and directors, saying, “I hear a lot of my friends are going to this, how can I get an invitation?”
These are not paid appearances. They actually want to come for the conversation.
Also, let’s not forget the market opportunities in Saudi Arabia right now. It’s the largest market in the region, both for production and consumption.
There’s also the 40% rebate announced by the film commission and we’ve also announced, as part of Neom, the largest soundstages in the region, which is again a very big opportunity. There’s a lot of movement that’s taking place in the industry as a whole. And I think a lot of people are eager to learn more about it.
Red Sea is a perfect entry point and introduction to what’s happening in the region as a whole.
I would also say I did hear the criticism [about the red carpet] and we had a lot of conversations about it with regional filmmakers, about the celebrities and big names.
The younger generation was also asking, ‘What is in this for? Are we a part of this? Are we included? Are you focusing only on top-tier celebrities, international celebrities?”
But often what they were seeing in the press was the red-carpet pictures and they didn’t realize there is an entire ten-day program going on alongside it.
This year, we’ll have 21 In-Conversations. They’re not done for PR or photo ops, or simply to attract international attention. They’re done to empower and transfer the know-how to the young generation in the region as well as established generation of filmmakers who want to upscale or rescale their expertise to an international level and calibre.
This is what we’re trying to do here. So, when we announce Guy Ritchie as an honorary guest, and that he’s doing an In-conversation event, it’s not for a PR opportunity, we want the younger generation of filmmakers to benefit from his experience, to learn from what he’s had to go through.
AL TURKI: Last year, we had great filmmakers, but it’s true we had more glamor than filmmakers. This year, I assure you, we have more on the filmmaker side, but we’ll also continue with the glamor side too.
DEADLINE: The inaugural edition took place against the backdrop of Jeddah’s historic center, or Al-Balad. This year, the festival has decamped to the palatial beachfront Ritz-Carton Hotel. What’s behind the move in location?
AL TURKI: We’ll be going back to Al-Balad in the future. Our headquarters are under construction there right now and it will be our permanent location. We hope to be back there by 2024.
We’re building an incredible auditorium with another four screening rooms and office space to run the festival and market.
DEADLINE: So, this year, everything will take place at the Ritz Carlton, even the screenings?
AL TURKI: We’ve converted a conference hall into our main auditorium for the red carpet, gala screenings. It’s got that grand feeling when you walk in. It feels like the Jeddah version of the Royal Albert Hall and can seat 1,300 people.
We also have another auditorium for smaller screenings in the Ritz, and through our partners, Vox Cinemas, we took over their venue at the Red Sea mall. It’s a brand-new cinema with state-of-the-art screening rooms and we’ll do a lot of our in-conversations there as well.
PANDYA: We’ll also have a site right across the street from the Ritz, on the popular Al-Hamra Corniche, which is where we’ll do our community screenings and some concerts.
AL TURKI: The open-air cinema there will show a lot of films that have been restored by the Red Sea Foundation, Egyptian classics like Watch Out For ZouZou and Ice cream Fi Glem starring Amr Diab.
DEADLINE: The festival has a strong Bollywood presence this year. Blockbuster Bollywood classic Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ) opens the Corniche programme. Indian mega-star Shah Rukh Khan is a guest of honor and a host of other Bollywood talents are expected to attend. Is Bollywood particularly popular in Saudi Arabia?
AL TURKI: Before we had movie theaters, on the Saudi channels on the weekend, they would always show Bollywood films. So Bollywood is infused in our culture. For Jomana and me, we grew up knowing who were Shah Rukh Khan, Kegel, Kareena Kapoor, Amitabh Bachchanwish and Aishwarya Rai. For us they were legends.
I took a trip to India with a team from the Film Commission and the Minister of Culture. Meeting all those Bollywood stars from Salman Khan to Akshay Kumar, we were all excited to be in their presence. I think this took them by surprise and they were quizzing us about our knowledge, and which of their films we knew.
DEADLlNE: So there is a big Bollywood cinema fanbase in Saudi Arabia?
AL TURKI: Huge, and we saw it live last year when we organised the world premiere of 83 in the final days of the festival. We had to hire extra security that day. The crowds came out of nowhere. They wanted to see Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh and be part of a Bollywood experience. There was cheering and yelling, it sounded more like a rock concert, than a premiere.
But it’s not only Bollywood. South Korea is also huge. Squid Game was number one on Netflix in Saudi for multiple weeks and when Parasite came out, there was a huge fan base all over Saudi for that too. Saudis love K-Pop. KCON took place in Riyadh just recently and it was a huge success.
DEADLINE: Jomana, you arrived in the role of chairman at the festival’s parent body the Red Sea Foundation this summer. Beyond this edition, what are your longer-term goals in that role?
AL-RASHID: As a team, we’ve decided we’re going to deliver this festival and then put together a new strategy. We want to have more activations throughout the year, beyond the 10-day festival in December. We’re looking at creating monthly programming that we roll out both in Saudi Arabia, regionally and the wider region, that we just touched on, whether be it in Africa or Asia, in line with the audience’s appetite. That’s a high-level objective for the first quarter of next year.
I would like to add, that the country and its population are going through seismic change. It’s a transformation that none of us could have seen before.
Mohammed and myself are people who worked abroad our entire professional careers. I only moved back in 2019. This is a country on the move. It’s also on a mission to change and transform and become prosperous, not just for Saudi Arabia but for the entire region.
I understand all the criticism that we get and appreciate the challenges that we face. But I really do believe that initiatives like the Red Sea festival and the foundation are an opportunity for us to bridge the gap and bring cultures together and to see beyond our disagreements.
We don’t always have to agree on all the different ideas, issues, principles, and concepts, but we can have an open dialogue about it. And we’re hoping that film and the film festival can be a platform for that as well.
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