Cinema stars descend on Saudi Arabia's first Red Sea International Film Festival

Deepika Padukone, Catherine Deneuve and other global names will be gracing the event from December 6 to 15

French actress Catherine Deneuve will be in attendance at the first Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah Old Town. AFP

The Red Sea International Film Festival opens its doors on Monday. The first film festival in Saudi Arabia, taking place in Jeddah Old Town, is a milestone cultural event that looks set to celebrate Arab and world cinema across its 10 days. Included in the festival are two sections celebrating the new wave of Saudi cinema – dedicated to shorts and feature films/documentaries. Egyptian director Marwan Hamed will also head the shorts competition jury, as they seek to reward the newest talent around. At the head of the festival is artistic director Edouard Waintrop, who arrives with a wealth of experience. A former critic for French newspaper Liberation, he curated seven editions of Directors’ Fortnight, the cutting-edge parallel strand at the Cannes Film Festival, between 2011 to 2018. Now he brings that experience to the kingdom, with an exciting line-up of films that will thrill the public and industry folk alike.

The Guests

French veteran actress Catherine Deneuve will join the festival, which will begin its first edition with several celebrations of women in film. One of European cinema’s grand dames, who began her career with hits such as Belle de Jour, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Repulsion in the 1960s, Deneuve has remained a key figure in world cinema, and her presence at the festival is a real coup.

Closer to home, the festival will honour Haifaa Al Mansour, who became the first female Saudi filmmaker with Wadjda and has since carved out an international career with films like Mary Shelley and television drama The Good Lord Bird. Esteemed New Zealand actress Kerry Fox, who began her movie career in Jane Campion’s An Angel at my Table, is also set to attend with her new film The Colour Room, about artist Clarice Cliff.

Other filmmakers who will grace the festival, include Giuseppe Tornatore, the director of Cinema Paradiso, who arrives with his documentary Ennio, about legendary film composer Ennio Morricone. Argentinean-French director Gaspar Noe will also be in attendance with his new film Vortex, a sublime study of an ageing married couple, that has already drawn comparisons to Michael Haneke’s Cannes-winning Amour.

Cricket fans of course will be delighted by the presence of legendary Indian player Kapil Dev, whose story has been encapsulated in 83 – directed by Kabir Khan – which will receive its world premiere as the festival closer. Bollywood star Deepika Padukone, who also features in the film, will be joining Dev and Khan, bringing some real glamour to the closing night.

Saudi director and member of the Un Certain Regard jury Haifaa al-Mansour poses during a photocall at the 68th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, southeastern France, on May 14, 2015.    AFP PHOTO / LOIC VENANCE / AFP PHOTO / LOIC VENANCE

The Spectaculars

The festival's line-up has some excellent films from around the globe that will be given the red-carpet treatment. Opening the Red Sea festival is British director Joe Wright’s Cyrano, a vibrant new take on the timeless love story by Edmond Rostand. Peter Dinklage from Game of Thrones stars as the chivalrous Cyrano, in a film that goes full-on MGM musical.

Also playing are two fine Spanish movies. The Good Boss – part of the ‘International Spectacular’ section – is a sharply scripted comedy starring Javier Bardem as the head of a manufacturing company whose life spirals out of control. Official Competition, meanwhile, stars Penelope Cruz, in this ripe film industry satire, in which she plays a no-nonsense director preparing for a film featuring Antonio Banderas as a diva star.

The dedication to movies with women at the helm continues with Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon, the latest from Iranian-American director Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night). This hugely enjoyable New Orleans-set romp, about a girl (Korean star Jeon Jong-seo) who escapes an asylum by wielding unusual powers, co-stars Kate Hudson as you’ve never seen her before.

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s festival hit The Lost Daughter, which marks her directorial debut, will also unspool. The film won Gyllenhaal the Best Screenplay award at Venice, and it’s easy to see this featuring in the awards season chatter, with top performances from British stars Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley. Last but by no means the least is Kenneth Branagh’s black-and-white Belfast, a tender look back at his own childhood in Northern Ireland, featuring Dame Judi Dench and Jamie Dornan.

The Competition

Sixteen films will play in the Red Sea Competition strand, as they compete for the Golden Yusr Award. It’s an impressive blend of films from the Mena region and around the globe. Among the directors who will be present, Iran’s Panah Panahi, son of venerated filmmaker Jafar Panahi, will bring his movie Hit the Road to the festival. Recently named Best Film at the London Film Festival, this comic road movie about a family journeying cross-country is a real crowd-pleaser.

Also playing in this strand is The Alleys. The directorial debut of writer/director Bassel Ghandour, who previously wrote and produced 2014’s First World War drama Theeb, it stars Emad Azmi and Baraka Rahmani as lovers caught up in a dangerous web. And then there’s Huda’s Salon, the brooding new thriller from Palestinian director Hany Abu Assaad, director of the Oscar-nominated Paradise Now. In it, Maisa Abd Elhadi plays Reem, a new mother who gets more than she bargained for when she goes to a Bethlehem hair salon for a beauty treatment.

Actor Emad Azmi in Bassel Ghandour's 'The Alleys'. Mad Solutions

The Next Generation

The festival has also catered to younger viewers with some superb-looking family films. Top of the pile is Sing 2, the sequel to Garth Jennings’s charmingly animated film about animals that can, well, sing. Back once again is Matthew McConaughey, voicing the talent impresario Buster Moon, who encourages his fellow critters to put on an even bigger show at Redshore City. This time, there’s even room for U2 lead singer Bono to voice a character – a reclusive lion (who you can bet will belt out a number or two by the end).

Also playing is Belle: The Dragon and the Freckled Princess, the new anime from Japanese cult director Mamoru Hosoda, whose past works include the timeless and beautiful Wolf Children and Mirai. This latest effort sees a shy schoolgirl enter a virtual world and take on the persona of a global singing star named Belle. Egyptian director Amr Salama will also be there presenting Bara El Manhag, a fantasy about haunted houses, ghosts and an orphan child. It sounds like a classic throwback to Steven Spielberg’s Amblin movies from the 1980s.

The Red Sea International Film Festival runs from December 6-15. For more details, visit redseafilmfest.com

Updated: December 5th 2021, 4:47 AM