Red Sea International Film Festival: Confluence of old and new

Projected as one of the cultural harbingers of a more modern Vision 2030 envisaged for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the tagline for the festival is “Waves of Change”, Namrata Joshi reports from Jeddah

Red Sea International Film Festival: Confluence of old and new
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Namrata Joshi

The venue and the opening film set the tone for the first edition of the Red Sea International Film Festival underscoring its aim to be a confluence of the old and the new, looking ahead at the future while being rooted in the past. Projected as one of the cultural harbingers of a more modern, liberal Vision 2030 envisaged for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the tagline for the festival, quite judiciously, is “Waves of Change”.

In Jeddah’s UNESCO World Heritage Site of old-town Al Balad, four brand new theatres, along with an open air one, nestle in the midst of the distinctive coral stone masonry architecture, turning the 1400-year-old area into a unique festival hub.

The red carpet on Monday attracted in your face glamour of the likes of Hollywood star Hilary Swank and Egyptian legend Laila Eloui, the gravitas of the French diva Catherine Deneuve as well as the more muted charm of the mega achiever Haifaa al-Monsour, Saudi Arabia’s first woman filmmaker.

Al-Mansour, Eloui and Deneuve were honoured on the occasion for their contribution to cinema, in keeping with the festival mission to celebrate women in film. And, in the fitness of things, it was for al-Monsour to steal the show at the opening ceremony with her awards acceptance speech. She spoke about how, forget making films, even watching them was a dream when she was growing up during the 35 odd years (1983-2018) that cinema was banned in the country. “That was a Saudi Arabia in which women and arts and culture were marginalized. Now they are at the core,” she said.

According to her, making films gave her a voice and being honoured at the festival was a personal acknowledgement for her as much as an important message sent out to women at large: “Never be afraid. We are coming tough and strong.”

Red Sea International Film Festival: Confluence of old and new
Red Sea International Film Festival: Confluence of old and new

Hollywood stars Anthony Mackie, Vincent Cassel and Clive Owen were also in attendance as was the Cannes Film Festival boss man Thierry Frémaux.

In tune with the event, the opening film, British director Joe Wright’s beautifully crafted musical Cyrano abounded in cinematic sweep—visual, aural as well as emotional. Lilting songs, lovely choreography and heart-wrenching war scenes and a script with a way with words and witticism. The film’s take on man-woman relationship and romance—what is it to love, compromise or succumb to hope, do we love people in parts or as a whole—is as modern and timeless as it can get. Towering over everything else is Peter Dinklage’s performance in the titular role where he deploys his face, eyes and voice in a devastatingly affecting manner.

The first edition of the festival boasts 138 feature films and shorts from 67 countries in 34 languages, including 27 new films from Saudi filmmakers. The Features Competition Jury is headed by Academy Award-winning director Italian filmmaker Giuseppe Tornatore.

Mohammed Al-Turki, Chairman of the Red Sea International Film Festival Committee, called the festival “a watershed moment for our burgeoning Saudi film industry”. “It is a true honour to host such a wealth of both international and Arabic talent at our opening ceremony, in a celebration of filmmaking unlike any other that the Kingdom has seen before. Over the next ten days, we will honour the very best of filmmaking from our region and beyond, and we could not have wished for a better way to begin, than tonight,” he said.

What remains to be seen is how the Saudi viewers and the global film fraternity responds to the event in the days and years to come. How will this new attempt at a significant cultural shift be perceived vis-à-vis the country’s political and human rights record? How far will the Saudi viewers warm up to arthouse cinema that pushes the boundaries of form, narrative and aesthetics while talking of contentious issues of politics, gender, violence et al? Most so, how many local films and filmmakers will bloom in the wake of the festival in Saudi Arabia?

All that the film lovers are saying at the moment in Jeddah is: May the force be with the films.

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