Jeddah Red Sea Film Festival marks historic moment for Saudi filmmakers
Saudi Arabia’s first film festival kicked off in the Red Sea city of Jeddah on December 6, nearly four years after the ban on cinemas was lifted in a bid to modernize the kingdom.
The red carpet was rolled out in front of Arabs, Saudis, global stars, filmmakers, directors and producers in a scene that was unimaginable in the conservative kingdom where women wore only traditional black abayas in public until a few years ago.
A series of reforms have been put in place since Mohammed bin Salman was appointed crown prince in 2017. Women are now allowed to drive. Mixed concerts are allowed and further steps are taken to liberalize the country as it seeks to diversify its economy and attract foreign investment.
The Red Sea International Film Festival (RSIFF), which kicked off a day after Jeddah hosted its first Formula 1 Grand Prix, will last until December 15 and will screen 135 feature films and short films from around the world in the part of a measure taken by the Saudi authorities to promote the new image of the kingdom.
During the opening ceremony, the festival honored an icon of French cinema, Catherine Deneuve; Egyptian actress Laila Elwi; and Saudi director and producer Haifaa Al-Mansour, who in 2012 directed “Wadjda”, the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia.
Mansour, who has won numerous international awards for his first feature film, expressed his joy with this honor: light; now we are there[light], by participating in the writing of a new page of the civilization of the region, and we are witnessing the change.
Festival director Muhammad al-Turki called the event a “historic day in the kingdom.”
The accolades come as the RSIFF celebrates the role of women in the film industry – films directed by women accounted for 38% of the festival’s total screenings.
During RSIFF 2021, 135 films from 67 countries will be screened, including 48 Arab premieres, 27 Saudi films and 17 world premieres.
The kingdom, the birthplace of Islam, had cinemas around half a century ago when they were first brought to the country by Westerners working for the California State Oil Company (later named ARAMCO).
Saudi cinemas were showing Egyptian, Indian and Turkish films in the 1970s. They were not considered un-Islamic, even though they were considered contrary to cultural norms. But cinemas were closed in the early 1980s as the influence of die-hard Islamic clerics grew.
Saudi actor Mohamed Salama said the festival was like a “dream” for all Saudi filmmakers, writers and other people involved in the industry.
“We never imagined that a day would come when a big event like this would be held in our country and bring international filmmakers and films from around the world to be screened in Saudi Arabia,” he told Al-Monitor.
Salama added: “We are all proud of this decision, which will help the film industry not only in Saudi Arabia, but also in Arab countries and in cooperation with other countries around the world.”
In addition to showing films, the event also aims to support filmmakers, develop their skills and encourage creativity through programs throughout the year.
Salama said the RSIFF has established a program that will support and fund film production, which is a big step in helping the industry, whether in Saudi Arabia or other countries.
“Now Saudi actors and filmmakers have no excuse not to work and produce new films. Previously, many ideas could not see the light of day due to lack of funding, ”he said.
Saudi TV and radio presenter Bassam Abdullah told Al-Monitor that the event is a great opportunity for all filmmakers, creators and production companies to be in one place to produce new films and series after the festival.
He expects Saudi Arabia’s film production to be completely different after the fact, both in quality and quantity.
Saudi director Ahmed Al-Mulla, who has produced the annual Saudi film festival in the eastern city of Dammam since 2008, said that before the theaters reopened in 2018, the industry was underground and relied on individual efforts in due to lack of capacity or funding, according to Agence France-Presse.
“There was no ability to film or get funding. It all depended on individual efforts, “he told AFP.
Mulla added, “Cinema is the soft power that can pave the way for the success of the social and economic changes taking place in the kingdom. “
But he believes cinema needs a high level of freedom of expression, featuring women and the freedom to broach different subjects – something that might be difficult at the moment.