Reel Life: Film Festival in Saudi Arabia- Creating cultural bridges

The organisers of the Red Sea International Film Festival, the first ever in Saudi Arabia, on the programming principles, aims and ambitions as well as the misgivings surrounding the upcoming event

Shivani Pandya Malhotra and Kaleem Aftab
Shivani Pandya Malhotra and Kaleem Aftab

Namrata Joshi

The Red Sea International Film Festival, the first ever in Saudi Arabia, is set to take place at the UNESCO World Heritage site of Jeddah Old Town from December 6-15. Initially supposed to take place from March 12-20 in 2020, it had to be postponed due to the Covid-19 outbreak.

The festival opens with Joe Wright’s musical Cyrano starring Peter Dinklage and closes with the world premiere of renowned Egyptian director Amr Salama’s latest feature, Bara El Menhag. There will be 130 feature films and shorts from 65 countries in 34 languages. About 35% of these would be from women filmmakers. The festival promises to show all the films uncensored.

India is represented in the festival in the Treasures section by the legend Satyajit Ray’s Joi Baba Felunath (The Elephant God), a thoughtful gesture to mark his centenary and Nithin Lukose’s debut directorial feature, the Malayalam film Paka, will be competing with 15 others from Asia, Arab and Africa.

Cinema halls had been banned in Saudi Arabia since the early 1980s, and the first one came up after almost 35 years in 2018. The festival hopes to support and help in the growth of Saudi Arabia’s emerging film industry and inspire new audiences across the country, both of whom had taken a hit with the pandemic just when they had begun to bloom.

The festival will showcase 17 shorts and seven features from Saudi Arabia. One of the most looked-forward-to titles in the New Saudi/New Cinema section is Becoming. The portmanteau film has five Saudi women filmmakers—Hind Al-fahhad, Jawaher Al-amri, Noor Al-ameer, Sara Mesfer, and Fatima Al-Banawi— helming the shorts that deal with a society in transition.

The festival has also led to a raging debate in the global film community. How to locate a liberal, progressive space like a film festival in an apparently closed, conservative and repressive State and society? More so in the light of the fact that intolerance and bigotry have lately been on the rise anyhow the world over, in the most democratic places at that, impacting both the content and the process of creation of cinema.

How liberal then will the festival truly be? How much will the proverbial envelope get pushed? How will creative liberty reconcile with cultural sensitivity and political authority? Also, in the context of recent geo-political scenario, how real is the purported larger push for a change anyhow, or is it mere mythmaking?

There are several misapprehensions and misgivings, and the answer of the organisers to everything is simple: it can only be seen and experienced on ground.

In an exclusive Zoom call, National Herald spoke about this and more with managing director Shivani Pandya Malhotra and Kaleem Aftab, director of international programming who take us through what lies ahead at the first ever Red Sea International Film Festival in Saudi Arabia.


In terms of programming, have you been gravitating towards films from Asia, Africa and the Arab world?

Kaleem Aftab: When we were setting up the sections of the festival, and were thinking about the Red Sea competition, one of the criteria was how do we promote Asian, African, including the Arab world films. That is why we decided to make a programme with a substantial prize for the winner of the competition, [but] only concentrating on these countries. So, it is one of the biggest film prizes in the world, if not the biggest, but the only ones who can win are filmmakers who are coming from Africa, Asia and the Arab world. Obviously, there was a lot of focus on Arab films, but we did not at all forget about films from the rest of the region.

A still from 'Paka'
A still from 'Paka'

How about India at the Red Sea festival?

KA: With India being a major producer in the world, we had 62 submissions for the festival, which were all watched. There were very many difficult decisions to come to the choice that we made—Paka. And I know it's Bangladeshi, but Rehana is into the final selection. So out of 16 films, two have come from the Indian subcontinent.

Then we also wanted to make sure that there was an African film, so we put in Saloum.

One of the big things we did was include Iranian films in the selection of the festival. We have Hit The Road, in competition, as well as a number of [other] great Iranian films populate the programme.

We wanted the festival favourites to be represented for the new type of cinephile who we hope to develop in Saudi Arabia; to look at the kind of arthouse films that have never had an opportunity to play in Saudi Arabia. Not even on TV or on the platforms. These are very new films that will push the boundaries and open hopefully in the marketplace to a new type of filmmaker, which would help independent filmmakers around the world.

So independent and young cinema would be the thrust?

I wouldn't necessarily say young when looking at celebrating a whole spectrum of everybody. Irrespective of age and background, it really was--What films fit in with the idea of metamorphosis? There were a number of wonderful films that we looked at from India—Dostojee, Pebbles, Fire in the Mountains. There were very good films but they didn't quite fit the theme of the festival this year. And it's no slight on the quality that they didn't make the competition.

The other Indian film is 'Joi Baba Felunath'…

The English title is The Elephant God… Obviously in this year, with the centenary of Ray, we wanted to celebrate that. He's a filmmaker who is very well celebrated in the West. And is for many cinephiles, the father of Indian cinema—the independent Indian cinema, obviously not the more popular Indian cinema. And we wanted to bring that to the audience and say, there's a very rich tradition of Indian films. There are new archivist looking at old products and how they can preserve the memory of Indian cinema. And we're really supportive of that in our Treasures section. We are very much looking at where we can create new archives, because it shouldn't just be the old classics of Hollywood and Britain and France, that are celebrated. We also have rich histories the world over.

Were there any dos and don’ts followed for the programming?

I don't know any festival in the Arab world that has shown some of the films that we are going to show and all uncensored, pushing the boundaries, essentially. Cinema is new. We don't know what the limits are. We don't know what the capabilities are. Obviously, having a Muslim background and growing up in a very traditional family I have an understanding of some of the limitations and some of the ideological conflicts that can happen between cinema and tradition. And I was looking at ways of appreciating both sides of that coin, of what both arguments are and so we are pushing the boundaries but we're also catering for people who like more family tastes, who are looking to bring their kids to films. One of the big things we did is have a very strong generation section, we have animation films from around the world. So, to answer your question simply; not really. And, in fact, the opposite.

Shivani Pandya Malhotra: There are about 130 films from 65 different countries and 34 different languages. So, it is quite a broad selection and got huge amounts of diversity in terms of what we are portraying.

Many films seem to be women centric.

There was no attempt by me even though we have a Women in Cinema focus, to push female cinema. It just happened naturally because they are the best films. The best films of the year have been very much female centric. The disenfranchised female voices that have been very underrepresented throughout the history of cinema, are finally getting a tiny voice. It is still not large enough. We're still progressing in that direction.

Any statistics available on the percentage of films directed by women?

SPM: I think we were working with about 35%. Within the Arab programme, we've got a Saudi film, which is called Becoming. We have supported five young filmmakers, women filmmakers, to put together an omnibus, and that we will be presenting at the festival. There are two such films, one which we enabled, and another one, which everybody else was quite excited about. We wanted to celebrate women, we think it's important, and it's also part of the 2030 vision in Saudi.

One of the first few filmmakers who got established internationally from Saudi is a woman, Haifaa Al-Mansour. We are honouring her at our festival this year. She really made inroads. And she started out long back when cinema was still not accessible or rather banned.

How has the response been from the world? There would have been misapprehensions, I am sure.

SPM: I have to say that we've got a great response. And, you know, of course, there are people who are apprehensive, but you know, I always say that they should come and see what's on the ground, from our side, from the foundation side and what we're doing. Our mandate is really to look at enabling the creative force, helping the filmmakers.

We're creating an international level film festival. We'll be showing films in their entirety, we're bringing in films from all over the world, we don't have limitations as such. We are a film festival, we are a cultural event, we're talking about creating cultural bridges, we're talking about showcasing what the cultural aspects are in this part of the world. There's a lot of change happening over the past few years. And it's quite incredible.

How many people are you expecting internationally to attend the festival?

I think we're going to be looking at about 800 to 1200 people so far. I don't know what might happen in the next few weeks, we might get more.

The films that are your fest favourites?

KA: They're all my favourites in some sort of way… The three films I feel would never have been shown in the Arab world, let alone Saudi, that we're going to showcase and that I think are very strong. The first one will be Dina Amer's, You Resemble Me, which is really for me growing up in the West, a film that gives a completely different perspective and highlights how the media can push opinion one way and our reality is another. There was a film that I was very surprised by, As In Heaven, by Tea Lindeburg, which was a film set in Denmark 100 years ago, but the filmmaker actually grew up in Saudi Arabia. It’s a very strong film, about continued struggles for emancipation for females to be able to actually go out for education and to the workplace. And then Radiograph of a Family for me as a documentary, the way it’s telling through a personal story, through still images, the reality of displacement and what it means to move countries and the globalised world and what it means to miss home, I think it’s the story for the modern world.

SPM: On the Arab side we have Amira which is great. Fay’s Palette is another one.

KA: I think Rupture in competition is going to be interesting, because it's a Saudi film that also has an international element. Billy Zane is in it. It's like, no one would expect it.

Our closing film on awards night is the premiere of the Egyptian film Bara El Menhag. The children's story is fascinating that I think will have audiences in raptures.

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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