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Red Sea Festival Chief Mahmoud Sabbagh on Attracting Movies, Execs to Saudi (EXCLUSIVE)

Mahmoud Sabbagh
Courtesy Red Sea International Film Festival

Saudi Arabian film director Mahmoud Sabbagh, who made a splash with groundbreaking romcom “Barakah Meets Barakah” and black comedy “Amra and the Second Marriage,” roughly a year ago became president of Saudi’s Red Sea International Film Festival, the kingdom’s first full-fledged festival and market. The ambitious event, which will run March 12-21 in Jeddah, recently announced a lineup featuring a fresh mix of international films launching in the region as well as a robust representation of Arab titles. Sabbagh spoke exclusively to Variety about the challenges of attracting movies, talents, and industry executives to its inaugural edition. Excerpts from the conversation.

It’s tough launching a film festival with ambitions to put it in on the map. And it’s no secret that there is an aversion to Saudi [due to the Jamal Khashoggi murder.] How tough was it to get movies and people to come?

Each film or director or producer that we really thought we liked and wanted to program, we just went and talked to them genuinely and openly. We understand some of the concerns, so we answered and addressed them. We engaged in a very open discussion, and to be honest we are artists. This festival is for artists; it’s backed by artists. It’s some sort of national dream [for us] to have this festival. We know that we come from the grassroots. This makes us really strong. When we make a case for coming to our festival, people see that we come from their world. They can relate. And to be honest, the result is beyond phenomenal.

What were some of the selection criteria?

We wanted to assemble a fresh lineup for the main competition. We are humble enough to know that we are not Cannes or Venice or Berlin. So we really wanted to program films that were either by young and upcoming filmmakers, or that captured something new in terms of storytelling; something daring. Or films coming from under-represented geographic areas, what we call the Global South.

The question we asked ourselves is what would our audience want to see? What are the types of discussions or conversations we want our audience to engage in?…Commercial cinemas opened in Saudi roughly a year-and-a-half ago. Ever since, the dominant type of programming has been Hollywood blockbusters. So with the festival we really wanted to create a counterpoint to that in terms of showing auteur films and more daring types of stories…In terms of selection criteria we had only two conditions: it should be a Middle East premiere and either the director, or a talent, or the producer had to attend.

From the U.S. you’ve got Oliver Stone heading the main jury. You also have Harvey Weinstein-inspired workplace abuse drama “The Assistant” and World War II drama “Resistance,” starring Jesse Eisenberg. How is your rapport with the U.S. indie scene?

I studied in New York. As a filmmaker I’ve been inspired by indie New York films and the Sundance element is quite strong in the selection. Some of the international films also premiered in Sundance this year, not just the U.S. ones. But we were really not looking for nationalities when we were programming. For example “The Assistant” is an American film; but it’s by an Australian female director. I love these types of films because they are more of a hybrid when it comes to nationality, more fluid when it comes to identity.

What are other titles that you are particularly proud of?

We have 3 or 4 world premiers, which wasn’t even something we were really looking for. And there are some really great finds like the documentary “Beirut, la vie en rose,” by Spanish director Eric Motjer who immersed himself in the one-percent rich society in Lebanon. It’s a very original take on the subject. I also really love “Aznavour by Charles,” about [late French-Armenian crooner] Charles Aznavour with lots of material that he shot in Africa. That’s pure cinema for me.

What were the constrains in terms of themes. In terms of what can be shown, or not shown at a festival in Saudi?

We like to say that we are a progressive festival. Honestly, when you examine our program you have to contextualize it within our [recent] past, like 3 or 4 four years ago. What we will be able to show is really quite progressive compared to what would have been allowed a few years back. I think this is the cycle of societies. What’s not accepted today might be accepted later on. As a a festival we are aware of this and we try to push. Pushing too much might be counterproductive, so we are also aware of that. Some films are daring and that doesn’t necessarily mean graphic, but daring in terms of themes, techniques, storytelling. We are really pushing for these films.

The festival also has a market component. Are there going to be execs coming from the U.S.?

Yes. We are focussing on two things: the film directors, and the key industry people. We have a solid industry program…We have the Red Sea Lodge with Torino Film Lab and also grants that have been announced and a very ambitious restoration program…we’ve sent a lot of invitations to a lot of key industry people, and so far the response is quite good. There are going to lots of executives coming from the U.S. studios.