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Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Festival Announces Projects in Development

The upcoming Red Sea International Film Festival, which is Saudi Arabia’s first major film event, has announced a first batch of Arabic projects that will benefit from a total of up to $3 million in support as well as mentoring through its Sundance-like development program, the Red Sea Lodge.

The program has been set up to nurture new voices in Arab cinema at the fest, the inaugural edition of which will run March 12-21, 2020, in the historic district of Jeddah, which is a Unesco World Heritage site.

The Red Sea Lodge is operated in tandem with Italy’s TorinoFilmLab and includes three workshops to be held in Jeddah, the first of which will take place next month. The program will support six projects from Saudi Arabia and six from the Arab world at large, excluding Qatar, with which Saudi Arabia is locked in a diplomatic standoff.

The six Saudi projects touch on potentially edgy topics, considering that cinema was banned in the kingdom for religion-related reasons for more than three decades, until December 2017. The selection provides a first indicator of the Red Sea fest’s overall programming criteria, which appear to be relatively unconstrained.

For example, they include an animated feature doc, “Practicing Polygamy,” exploring the “daily reality of polygamy” in Saudi Arabia, written and directed by U.S.-trained Malak Quota, a graduate of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. Another selected feature film project is “A Trip to Disney,” by director Maha Alsaati, known for shorts that explore femininity and gender roles in Arab cultures. The new project is about a Saudi woman who, abandoned by her lover, travels from Saudi Arabia to Florida.

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“Finding herself in the Disney empire,” presumably at Disney World in Orlando, the film’s protagonist “discovers she is not his princess,” reads the synopsis. Saudi women up until last month were not allowed to travel abroad without permission from a male “guardian.”

Female directors account for one-third of the 12 selected for the Red Sea Lodge, and more than a quarter of them have female producers, the festival said.

The non-Saudi projects selected for Red Sea Lodge support and guidance come from Jordan, Egypt, Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon. They include several titles already making the rounds of the region’s funding platforms, such as black comedy “Inshallah a Boy,” by Jordanian first-timer Amjad Al Rasheed, which first surfaced at last year’s Cairo Film Connection. It’s about a widow who, because of Islamic Sharia law, finds herself in dire need of a male child to stop her in-laws from taking possession of her home.

From Egypt, the Red Sea Lodge committee selected drama “A Journey of Bullets and Bread,” directed by Mohammad Hammad (“Withered Green”) and produced by prominent indie producer Mohamed Hefzy and Kholoud Saad; from Palestine, “Scheherazade Goes Silent,” the directorial debut of producer Amira Diab (“The Mountain Between Us”); from Lebanon, “The Basement Notes,” about a rock band during wartime, by Hadi Ghandour (“The Traveler”), and also female empowerment-themed “I Am Arza,” by first-timer Mira Shaiba. Rounding out the non-Saudi selection is first-time Iraqi director Ali Kareem’s “The Arabic Interpreter,” about a young Iraqi based in Berlin who takes a job at a refugee camp and is reminded of the wars he experienced in his home country.

The Red Sea festival is headed by Saudi filmmaker Mahmoud Sabbagh (“Barakah Meets Barakah”), who is president. Former Sundance fest documentary programmer Hussain Currimbhoy is artistic director, and the managing director is the Dubai fest’s former top exec Shivani Pandya Malhotra. French industry veteran Julie Bergeron will run the market.

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