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“It’s amazing because I never expected the festival to grow like this,” says Antoine Khalife, director of Arab programs and film classics at the Red Sea Film Festival, which kicked off its sophomore edition this week in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. “We are only on our second edition and have done great research to create different sections and bring great films to the festival, so it’s very exciting. I am quite surprised about what we managed to do in two years.”

Khalife, who has been with the festival since its inception in 2020 when the inaugural edition had to be delayed due to COVID-19, emphasizes the importance of believing in the films he brings to the Red Sea. “I was so very proud of the program last year, and wanted to sustain the same level for 2022. When we had our criteria meeting, we had certain countries and themes in mind, but what we really wanted was to have a program that not only we enjoyed but also truly believed in, distributed within appropriate sections. We didn’t think about having certain films from Saudi or Egypt, we wanted to have something creative, for the program to have a really strong character.”

“One of our goals is to support this industry but also to promote independent films,” he continued, “we don’t have a quota, we select projects without thinking about specific numbers or having a target in mind. For example, when we did our 2022 selection, we discovered many Saudi films were produced this year. We watched them and kept discovering more and more, so we ended up with seven feature films and many more short films.”

“Dirty Difficult Dangerous”

Despite having Red Sea Fund-supported projects in the program, Khalife reiterates the festival and the fund are two separate entities. “As a programmer, I always ask myself if the films supported by the Red Sea Fund are appropriate for our program because these are two different things, the festival and the fund. As the head of the Arab program, my programmers and I are always defending our ability to find the films we would like to have at the festival. I am happy we got to do it in an independent way. We chose what we wanted.”

Still, the director of Arab programs emphasizes the importance of the fund in fostering the local film industry. “It’s important for the Red Sea Fund to support these films because there are not many funds within the Arab region and it’s so difficult for productions and filmmakers. Having our support is something amazing for the teams behind these projects.”

“I have a vision for Saudi cinema,” he says on the legacy of the festival and its initiatives. “My aim is to work more and more with scripts that can be more exportable. I want people to think about scriptwriting, how they write, and how to work with actors. I think it’s something we really need to work on. I believe this will be our main mission, plus helping set up independent cinemas and getting independent films distributed in Saudi. This is a big country and we don’t have enough independent cinemas.”

Fomenting a cinemagoing habit in Saudi is a great goal of Khalife’s and something he keeps in mind when programming films for the festival. “You know when English-speaking actors come from theater and are able to create something amazing? We wanted to have a program that was this strong in terms of acting. To us, this was extremely important because we want audiences to watch a film and be able to see how the directors work with actors, how they develop their scripts. This is vital because we want people to be inspired by these films. We select films for the festival in the hopes of perhaps finding distributors in Saudi Arabia, but we also have a responsibility towards the filmmakers, the producers and the writers to show that films made in Saudi Arabia, Asia and Africa are just as inspiring in their cinematography.”

Treasuring Arab films is quite literally at the core of Khalife’s Red Sea: Treasure strand, the festival’s retrospective. This year, the festival restored two Egyptian classics: “Watch Out for ZouZou” and “Love in Karnak.” “This year, we chose to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the production of these films. ‘Watch Out for ZouZou’ stayed in theaters for over a year, and people loved the film. You can’t imagine. It was the 70s, the girls wanted to date and dance. It was all really different. So this is something we wanted to celebrate. We also wanted to celebrate films that people haven’t seen on the big screen, like ‘Love in Karnak,’ which is a film people know from television. We want people to rediscover this film, particularly young audiences. I think it’s important because I believe we didn’t do enough for our treasures in the Arab world. Many films from countries like Egypt, Lebanon and Algeria have been completely neglected and I am thrilled we are doing this and other festivals like Cairo have followed. It’s a good step.”

Antoine Khalife

When asked how the Arab program reflected this year’s festival theme of “Film Is Everything,” Khalife said: “The theme, to me, is about changing our ways of thinking and finding a way to be free and to think without prejudice. When we say that film is everything, I want people here to accept what we are offering them, even if it is — I don’t want to say shocking — different.”

“We have a film called ‘Dirty Difficult Dangerous,’ which is about a Syrian refugee who falls in love with an Ethiopian worker in Lebanon,” he continues. “This story is impossible for many reasons, but I want people here to feel this love story, to feel empathy towards other people, towards the worker, the refugee. For me, when we say film is everything, it’s because it really is everything, because when we see something like this, an impossible love story, a Saudi woman can go watch the film and truly think about the tragedy of it. It’s the same with a film like ‘Hanging Gardens,’ the Iraqi film about two boys finding a sex doll in the garbage. The small boy falls in love with the doll because he thinks of her as his sister, his mother. He’s not mature yet. I want people to see that this is not just a tragedy, it’s a challenge. So I want our program to be just as strong as our festival theme in a sense of being able to change our point of view without judgment. I don’t want people to judge, I want people to tolerate.”