What can people expect? – Deadline
EXCLUSIVEFew recent festival launches have sparked as much discussion as the Red Sea International Film Festival, Saudi Arabia’s first-ever film festival.
Film festivals are widely seen as liberal spaces, but Saudi Arabia is one of the most culturally conservative and politically repressive countries on the planet. So how do these two truths come together? On the eve of the event’s lineup announcement, we caught up with Festival Director General Shivani Pandya Malhotra to talk about the challenges and opportunities of hosting a global event in this controversial state.
The former managing director of the Dubai Film Festival was supposed to oversee the festival’s inaugural edition last March but, like so many events, it was canceled due to the pandemic. The festival, held in the port city of Jeddah, will instead take place next month from December 6 to 15.
Jeddah is primarily known as a commercial hub and gateway for pilgrimages to the holy Islamic cities of Mecca and Medina, but there are also a handful of resort hotels with beaches. The festival itself will take place in the Al-Balad neighborhood, which dates back to the 7th century.
So far, the festival has announced its Saudi Arabian, Arab spectacular and classic lineups. The competition and international components will be unveiled on Tuesday.
The organizers were at the Cannes and Venice festivals this year as they continued to mobilize support. But inevitably, there remains uncertainty on the part of many on how to approach the festival. Some want to support the growing cinematic ambitions of the country and its local creators, others see it as a financial opportunity, many remain concerned about the country’s poor human rights record, including the shocking state-sponsored murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
There have been political and societal gains in Saudi Arabia over the past three years, especially in terms of women’s rights, but the country is still deeply patriarchal. Sexual, religious and political plurality is practically non-existent. Should that prevent people from going to the event to participate in the cultural change? Is there a real cultural shift at play here or is this an example of state sponsored image / culture laundering? Can the nasty actions of a government be separated from the ambitions of a state sponsored festival? We discuss some of these topics and others with Pandya.
DEADLINE: How did the preparations go?
SHIVANI PANDYA MALHOTRA: We have a lot to do, and a lot has already been done. It will be crucial. A lot of people are puzzled. We look forward to welcoming everyone to the festival. We will have over 115 films from 65 countries. The competition centers on films from Asia, Africa and the Arab world. We are very excited about the Arab training, which is very strong. We will have a great program. The industry will have a lot to discover.
DEADLINE: How much of a challenge was it to get the movies you wanted?
MALHOTRA: There has been an abundance of films available. Many Arab festivals take place in a row. We were able to have good conversations with the Cairo Film Festival, for example. We got more than what we wanted.
DEADLINE: And in terms of talent?
MALHOTRA: We are doing well and the conversations have been good. We locked up a few people. There have been obvious travel issues due to Covid. Saudi Arabia has been very strict and has controlled its borders very well. The country currently only has about 45 cases nationwide. There is pre-flight PCR testing and we will have PCR testing at the festival. Visitors to the country need an app that provides access to restaurants and public places.
DEADLINE: What are the Covid restrictions at this time?
MALHOTRA: The country’s regulations state that you must be doubly vaccinated to enter. We will potentially get some exemptions. There is pre-flight PCR testing and we will have PCR testing at the festival. Saudi visitors need an app that provides access to restaurants and public places. There will be no distancing in cinemas.
DEADLINE: How much of the programming is in English and how many American films will you get?
MALHOTRA: Not bad. We have a nice selection, both independent films and studio films. We have an International Spectacular section and a Best Of The Fest section. We have a few new movies that haven’t been on the tour.
DEADLINE: Did you talk to US studios a lot?
MALHOTRA: Yes, that was great. We talked to most of the people. There were a lot of questions. Having one-on-one discussions with people allowed us to clarify the many misunderstandings people have. The studios came to visit us here in Saudi Arabia last week. We have a few studio movies in the lineup. I think within a year or two we will have all the studios present here in one way or another. The Saudi market is growing and is very promising. There is a population of over 33 million people and over 2,400 screens are planned in the next few years alone. [There are also a growing number of international film projects shooting in the country, including horror movie Cello starring Jeremy Irons and upcoming Gerard Butler action pic Kandahar].
DEADLINE: So you brought American teams down from the studios?
MALHOTRA: It was above all the international studio teams. I think we will have American delegates from the studios. It is about getting to know the local players and exhibitors. Some want to see the movies, some want to explore other collaborations.
DEADLINE: What is the quality of Saudi Arabian films at the festival?
MALHOTRA: There has been great quality in the films coming out of the region this year. We have six Saudi feature films and 27 Saudi films in total including shorts. The level of production that takes place here is improving all the time.
DEADLINE: And in terms of the number of women directors?
MALHOTRA: Overall the program, I believe it is around 30-35%. Eight of the 18 Saudi short films are directed by women, and in the Saudi feature film lineup announced today, 3/7 of the feature films are directed by female directors.
DEADLINE: What type of budget are you working with and can you tell us about the facilities?
MALHOTRA: We can’t disclose this, but it’s a healthy budget. We were able to deliver what we wanted. We welcome filmmakers, we are located in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Al-Balad. We are creating a whole pop-up ecosystem of markets and theaters. It’s very atmospheric. As for the rooms, we have a custom built cineplex and another location. We have two locations in total. The guests all stay in hotels in the city near the festival headquarters.
DEADLINE: Most of your funding comes from government, doesn’t it?
MALHOTRA: In fact, a lot also comes from sponsorship. We depend on the local Ministry of Culture, of course, like most festivals in the world. But we have an aggressive sponsorship plan and the plan is to make ourselves more dependent on sponsorship as the editions progress. Most of our sponsors are regional this edition.
DEADLINE: Do you expect Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman or a member of the royal family to attend the festival?
MALHOTRA: I am not aware of any such conversation at the moment.
DEADLINE: Eternals was recently banned in Saudi Arabia and neighboring countries, apparently due to gay elements in the film. How far are there restrictions on the movies you want to stream?
MALHOTRA: I think people should come and see the films and let us know… We are sensitive to the environment but we have no restrictions. We will screen films in their entirety. We will be sensitive to the culture around us, but we organized the films we wanted. We present what we want and push the limits in our training, including in the Arab selection.
DEADLINE: So how does it work Eternals is not allowed to be shown in the country but you have carte blanche? It seems a bit contradictory …
MALHOTRA: I don’t think that’s the case. It was like that in Dubai too. We were sensitive to the cultural environment. The idea was to try to get audiences to accept and feel comfortable watching films from different countries and contexts. It’s part of the work of a festival, to broaden people’s mindsets, to showcase diversity. It’s a matter of time, the change is gradual.
DEADLINE: Is it fair to assume that there won’t be any movies featuring homosexuality?
MALHOTRA: I think you should come to the festival and see for yourself …
DEADLINE: In terms of local cultural norms, what restrictions will there be on what people can wear at the festival, for example, and how should people behave? [Saudi Arabia is one of a handful of countries in the world with a total ban on alcohol, for example.]
MALHOTRA: Public displays of affection are not common throughout the Gulf region. People should be careful with this regardless of your sexuality. In terms of clothing, we recommend that people dress modestly. Women do not have to cover their hair. But there are no do’s and don’ts as such.
DEADLINE: If you are gay, are you welcome to the Red Sea Film Festival?
MALHOTRA: Everyone is welcome.
DEADLINE: What would you say to those who are hesitant or skeptical about participating for political or cultural reasons?
MALHOTRA: For me, the most exciting is seeing the Saudi talent. They are ready to go and want to take over the world. It’s exciting to see this talent and to consider how long they are waiting. I want people to come and mingle with the film community here. We are here to open doors for them. I believe that once people come here – I know there is a lot of misunderstanding about what Saudi Arabia is – they will find out what it really is.
DEADLINE: Regarding the next editions, what can we expect?
MALHOTRA: We are running our Red Sea Lodge program and are considering setting up one or two additional labs. We’re trying to become a year round proposition in terms of funding and helping filmmakers and we’ll have more funding decisions to announce soon. We seek to include African filmmakers as well as Saudi and regional filmmakers. We had an overwhelming response to our call for entries, over 600 films.
DEADLINE: Do you have a long term contract at the festival?
MALHOTRA: I have a year-round contract, which is quite common in the region.