Jeddah Diary: A film festival in Saudi Arabia and women film makers

A theatre opened in Saudi Arabia in 2018 after 35 years. 27 of the films made in the last three years by Saudi filmmakers were showcased at Red Sea International Film Festival. Namrata Joshi writes

Jeddah Diary: A film festival in Saudi Arabia and women film makers
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Namrata Joshi

Eventually it was a text message from a friend that laid all conflicts in my head to rest: “Never say no to the opportunity of going to a totalitarian state, especially as a film journalist. It’s where cinema has the most important role to play, where films can truly make a difference.”

And so, after much dithering in the face of the international film community’s vertical divide on the film festival in Jeddah—attempt at a human rights whitewash said most while ‘genuine attempt at fostering a cultural shift’ said others—I decided to dive in and attend the first ever Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, a country that had shut itself from cinema for 35 years (1983-2018).

The biggest oil exporter and the most militarized country in the world has been inviting global censure for— war crimes in Yemen to the assassination of journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi, from the Wahhabi orthodoxy, anti Semitism, supporting and funding terrorism to the blatant gender, LGBT and human rights violations.

“Separate the people of the country from its politics, they are craving change,” said Shubhodeep Pal, a marketing consultant who had one foot in Saudi Arabia since 2017 till the pandemic came along. “I have seen the transformation, the pace of change has been significant,” he reassured.

Also, I wondered what moral high ground could I take on Saudi Arabia with intolerance, bigotry, violations, and violence rising the world over, in the most democratic places at that, specifically impacting content and the process of making films?

Jeddah Diary: A film festival in Saudi Arabia and women film makers

A bunch of friends and family needled me on whether I had put in an abaya in the suitcase. I had not. However, uncertain of the alien world and supposedly restricted culture I was going to enter, I did throw in a few scarves and a long flowing cape, just in case the need arose. It never did.

I dressed no differently from how I do in India and the cape came back, crisp in its original crease in the suitcase. What did unravel were a bunch of presumptions.

Film festivals are not events tailored for investigative or political journalism. One soaks in the films, observes people and listens a lot. I was a silent observer, a fly on the wall. Absorbing, assimilating, but not questioning.

Niqabs, hijabs and abayas are all pervasive but what was infinitely more striking, in both the bourgeois as well as the genteel world that one moved around in, were the beautiful eyes that stared back at you and the trendy sneakers on their feet below, for you to figure out how chic and elegant the people behind the state-imposed cloaks of modesty must be.

Sneakers, incidentally, are as omnipresent as abayas. All a rage, they are something entire Jeddah seems to be dashing around in, whatever be the gender, age, or class. Sushi and artisanal breads and cakes are also in vogue, going by their abundance at the festival parties and the high-end food stalls set up at the venue. I had the best vegan sushi and mushroom risotto by far at the opening night party.

Pal, who chose not to live in the sequestered and heavily guarded exclusive “compounds” for the expatriates and instead rented an apartment in the As Salamah suburb, was also taken in by the country’s “rich and vibrant restaurant culture”. Saudi women, who he had imagined would be a certain way—read suppressed and oppressed—surprised him in business dealings with their professional ways and an openness to unconventional ideas. He had seen the reforms for women unfold while living in Jeddah. The right to drive came about in 2017 and it was in 2019 that women above 21 years of age were allowed to travel abroad, register a divorce or marriage and apply for official documents without the consent of a male guardian. It was also in 2019 that hijab and abaya were no longer required to be worn in public. Wearing them now is a matter of choice than a rule.

Jeddah Diary: A film festival in Saudi Arabia and women film makers

A warm pair of eyes behind the niqab that I encountered every day was that of a young volunteer managing the travel between the Crowne Plaza hotel and the unique 1400-year old venue of the festival—UNESCO World Heritage Site of old-town Al Balad.

Within days I had learnt to identify her—let’s call her J—in the crowd despite not having seen her. Though she was born and brought up in Jeddah, J’s parents trace their roots back to Lucknow. Inspired by her seamster father, J, a commerce graduate, wants to be a fashion designer. A fan of Kate Spade as well as Masaba Gupta, she wants to be an icon like them. She wants to train in India, at the National Institute of Design or the National Institute of Fashion Technology, but Jeddah is home and will remain so. The market is bigger, and it is easier to take a leap into the European fashion circuit from there than India, she explained.

Any regular festival goer will tell you that the volunteers are the heart and soul of the event, help keep things moving smoothly. The ones in Jeddah were as efficient, friendly, smart, cool, and in tune with the latest, especially music, as any youngster in any corner of the world. More than the festival itself, however, it was Saudi Arabia’s inaugural Formula One race and Justin Bieber’s concert that had them excited.

It’s been a while now that one has been hearing about the “cultural change” being ushered in Saudi Arabia by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. The path-breaking Red Sea festival was also being projected as one of the cultural harbingers of a more modern, liberal Vision 2030 that aims at diversifying the country’s economy beyond oil and developing sectors like health, education, recreation, entertainment, and tourism.

So, the festival was not just about a one-off showcasing of world cinema but the pivot for a larger effort at building the nascent film industry by opening the country for international film shoots and setting up funds to support local films and filmmakers. The tagline said “Waves of Change”.

Al Balad itself had a festive touch every evening with families thronging for the cultural events and food festival on the sidelines. The four brand new theatres, along with an open air one, nestled in the midst of the distinctive coral stone masonry architecture had not been attracting much crowd in its inaugural edition—it will indeed take time for the Saudi viewers, with no long history of cinema of their own, to warm up to arthouse cinema. But it did involve the whole city in the general air of festivity.

It's here that I met two women filmmakers of Saudi Arabia, part of the group of five that has made the women-centred omnibus film Becoming. Sara Mesfar and Fatima Al-Banawi were not just dressed in trendy Western attires but were also ahead of the curve when it comes to gender politics.

“The West has been burning the bra, are hijabs being burnt in Saudi Arabia,” asked a brash foreign journalist. Mesfar was quick to explain that while she doesn’t sport a hijab, her mother does and to wear it or not is ultimately a matter of choice for both and a sign of them achieving their own inner liberation.

A bunch of Saudi women I spoke to stressed that they’d want rights to be negotiated within their own cultural context than as per the “absolutist” Western standards or values and “tone deaf” opinions. For them Islam has not been the problem but the obscurantist interpretations of the religion and they are hopeful things will change with the slow and steady strides.

Jeddah Diary: A film festival in Saudi Arabia and women film makers
Jeddah Diary: A film festival in Saudi Arabia and women film makers

There are a few statistics offered straight off the Internet—the labour force participation rate of Saudi women increased from 20.2% in late 2018 to 33.2 percent by the end of 2020, 48% of Saudi nationals working in the retail sector are women, 70% of the students in Saudi institutes of higher education are women and female literacy is estimated to be 93%.

I wondered if Al Balad, where the international invitees were debating with the locals, could well be an anomaly. Film festivals are after all liberal, progressive bubbles where outrageous films can unspool and, even in the abstinent Saudi Arabia, liquor can get served in diplomatic parties even though it isn’t allowed elsewhere, not even in the flights into the country.

To be fair, elsewhere in the city too I found women confident in the public spaces—driving, often alone; two of them, unaccompanied by men with kids in strollers along the promenade near the Jeddah landmark—the world’s tallest King Fahad’s Fountain; another arguing loudly and fighting with her partner outside Café Aroma near the Corniche. I found women walking down the Palestine Street Walk in jeans and T-shirt and having a cup of coffee alone in the Starbucks. Surely these candid moments couldn’t have been set up for the festival visitors.

Yet my own experience of walking about the town was not as pleasant as the walks I have enjoyed on my own in Europe. It was not safety concern so much as the intrusiveness. Cars honked, I got stared at. But I brushed it off and explained it away for being an odd lone stranger on a road to nowhere.

There were other paradoxes. I found sex, nudity, homosexuality playing on without a hitch at the Red Sea Film Festival, films being shown uncensored, with just a content warning. In the same breath Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story had been banned for its gay content in Saudi Arabia’s commercial multiplexes. How does one reconcile this? Change is incremental, never overnight.

Jeddah Diary: A film festival in Saudi Arabia and women film makers
Jeddah Diary: A film festival in Saudi Arabia and women film makers

Like elsewhere in the world, being an Indian in Saudi Arabia is all about being identified with Bollywood. The immigration officer smiled when I told him that I was a film journalist. “Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan,” he laughed while stamping my passport. If there’s one place in the world that the chauffeur Adi said he wanted to go to, it’s Mumbai. That’s where his heroes live. In the hotel I found several TV channels crammed with Hindi films, especially Salman’s. He is the biggest Indian star in Saudi Arabia and his performance in Riyadh as part of the Da-Bangg tour was a much-anticipated event back then. At the festival itself, the largest crowds were reserved for 83 premiere, with many Saudis requesting us Indian guests to help them get tickets.

The lasting memory that one has brought back from Jeddah is that of Arab hospitality. From the polite pickups at the airport to the hot, straight out of the oven manakeesh (an Arab bread) slathered with labneh and zaatar for breakfast to the delicious Arab bread pudding Umm Ali. No other film festival has ever made me feel so welcome. “Saudis are the most easy-going and generous people I have encountered,” says Pal. What’s worth noting is that the hospitality industry boasts of a lot of Sri Lankans, Indians, Bangladeshis and now Southeast Asians, mostly from Philippines. I noticed many of them on my way back, at the Jeddah airport, manning the food stalls.

As I went in for the security check, I was asked to remove the shawl that I had draped over my shoulders. A second later the lady officer asked apologetically if I wasn’t uncomfortable and would want to continue wearing it. Clearly for her, the shawl was my abaya. I smiled and told her I had no issues and spotted an answering smile in her kohled eyes. I will recognise her for the eyes as well as the smart sneakers next time I see her. Saudi Arabia has ultimately been all about bonding with fellow human beings in curious new ways without being stymied by its politics.

Jeddah Diary: A film festival in Saudi Arabia and women film makers
Jeddah Diary: A film festival in Saudi Arabia and women film makers
Jeddah Diary: A film festival in Saudi Arabia and women film makers
Jeddah Diary: A film festival in Saudi Arabia and women film makers

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

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Published: 21 Jan 2022, 8:00 PM