First Saudi Film Fest Hires Former Sundance Programmer, Sets Dates

The Red Sea International Film Festival, which is Saudi Arabia’s first international film fest, has officially announced its team and set March 12-21, 2020, as the dates of its first edition. The event is to be held in the historic district of Jeddah, which is a Unesco World Heritage site.

As anticipated by Variety, former Dubai Film Festival exec Shivani Pandya has been named general manager of the ambitious event. Hussain Currimbhoy, who has previously served as a documentary programmer at the Sundance Film Festival, is joining as artistic director

Somewhat like Sundance, the Red Sea fest is positioning itself as a year-round film lab/incubator, which it is calling the Red Sea Lodge, to be operated in a partnership with Italy’s Torino Film Lab.

The Red Sea Lodge will select 12 Arabic projects, of which at least six will be directed by Saudi filmmakers. It will provide two of the selected projects with a $500,000 check and also give out other unspecified financial support. The filmmakers who make the cut in the lab’s so-called “New Arab Wave” program will participate in a five-month support workshop run by Arabic and international film industry experts.

Veteran Arab cinema programmer Antoine Khalife, who is also a Dubai fest veteran, has come on board as director of the Saudi fest’s Arab Program, while Saudi-based marketing exec  Samaher Mously has been appointed director of marketing and communications.

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As previously announced, the festival’s president is young Saudi director Mahmoud Sabbagh, known for the groundbreaking comedies “Barakah Meets Barakah” and “Amra and the Second Marriage.”

Organizers said the fest’s mission is to launch “a dynamic platform for new films,” to “develop talent, build a local industry, promote Saudi films regionally and internationally,” and “create an active market and increase cultural exchange and understanding.”

There have been concerns that the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the suspected involvement of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the killing would cast a cloud over Saudi Arabia’s ambitions to build a film industry, undermining the oil-rich kingdom’s ability to forge international ties.

While those doubts remain, the fest’s ability to bring on board Currimbhoy and the prestigious Torino Film Lab, which has a wide network of global contacts, signals that it has been able to at least partly overcome that negative factor.

The fest was originally announced in March, along with other arts initiatives, by Prince Badr Bin Abdullah Bin Farhan, who was appointed Saudi Arabia’s first culture minister last June. The prince, who is in his early 30s, is believed to be determined to lay the groundwork for an entertainment industry in Saudi Arabia.

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