Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Intl. Film Festival is becoming a major catalyst for moviemaking in a place where it hadn’t really existed for a long time before.
Ever since Saudi Arabia lifted its 35-year-old religion-related ban on cinema in 2017, all aspects of film industry activity have been booming in the country. It’s also rapidly becoming the Middle East’s top-grossing territory in terms of theatrical box office returns.
Reflecting this rapid growth, the Red Sea fest, Saudi’s first film event and market with international ambitions, has a lineup of more than 100 titles comprising a rich mix of film premieres from the Arab world, Africa and Asia. The festival, now in its second edition, will also screen standout international festival circuit titles that will screen, uncensored, Dec. 1-10 in Jeddah, on the eastern shore of the Red Sea. The opener, Shekhar Kapur’s frothy arranged marriage rom-com “What’s Love Got to Do With It?,” will set the tone.
Oliver Stone has been recruited to preside over the competition jury. The competition comprises 16 titles of fresh films from the Arab region, including Saudi’s current international Oscar contender, the coming of age comedy “Raven Song.” Produced by leading indie shingle Telfaz 11, “Raven Song” is about a young man named Nasser, who, after being diagnosed with a brain tumor, is coaxed by his best friend to reach out to an enigmatic woman with whom he is infatuated by singing her a love poem.
Also competing at Red Sea are Lebanese director Wissam Charaf ’s love story between two refugees living in Beirut, “Dirty Difficult Dangerous”; Iraqi director Ahmed Yassin Al Daradji’s experimental “Hanging Gardens,” which follows a young Baghdad garbage picker who finds a discarded American sex doll; and India’s entry for the international Oscar, “The Last Film Show,” a fictional retelling of director Pan Nalin’s boyhood that’s an ode to cinema.
Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or winning satire of the super-rich, “Triangle of Sadness,” Martin McDonagh’s tragicomedy “The Banshees of Inisherin” and Luca Guadagnino’s cannibal romancer “Bones and All” are among fest faves getting Saudi launches.
The closer is the world premiere of Saudi feature “Valley Road,” written and directed by writer-director Khaled Fahd, who started his career in Canada before Saudi Arabia lifted the ban on cinema. It’s an uplifting drama about a man named Ali who lives in a mountain village and is perceived as having a disability.
“There are significant changes that have been taking place in Saudi Arabia over the past five to 10 years and we’ve seen major progress being made specifically within the cultural and creative industries,” says Jomana R. Alrashid, CEO of the Saudi Research and Media Group (SRMG), who became chairman of the Red Sea Film Festival’s foundation in September.
“This is where we come in as Red Sea Film Festival,” she adds, noting that the fest is much more than just an annual film celebration given its Red Sea Fund. This year, the fund provided up to $500,000 per film to support more than 100 projects by directors from Saudi Arabia, the Arab world and Africa, for a total of $14 million.
“We are looking to tell stories that have been untold and showcase talent that has been hidden for so long,” Alrashid says.
SRMG, a Saudi Arabian publishing and media company, which is publicly traded, is a minority investor in PMC, Variety’s parent company.
The Red Sea Souk, the fest’s industry market, will run Dec. 3-6 and offer curated meeting and networking opportunities revolving around Arab and African product, as well as several panels. Execs from 46 countries are expected to take part this year.
“What’s been really exciting is that we are seeing higher industry participation, about double the number as our first edition, both from the region and beyond,” says Shivani Pandya Malhotra, who after 15 years running the now-defunct Dubai Intl. Film Festival, has been building the Red Sea fest since 2019.