Johnny Depp and Ranveer Singh at star-studded opening of Red Sea Film Festival 2023

The event, which opened on Thursday, is running until next Saturday

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The Red Sea International Film Festival has launched its third event with considerable star power.

The festival, running until next Saturday, opened at The Ritz-Carlton in Jeddah on Thursday. While stellar red carpet openings have been a staple since the festival’s inaugural event in 2021, the ceremony was decidedly glitzier this year.

Hollywood figures Johnny Depp, Will Smith, Sharon Stone, Michelle Williams, Freida Pinto, Joel Kinnaman, Paz Vega, Sofia Vergara and Baz Luhrmann were in attendance.

Regional stars included Egyptian director Yousry Nasrallah, Syrian actor Kosai Khauli, Lebanese actress Maguy Bou Ghosn, Egyptian actress Shereen Reda, Lebanese actor Adel Karam as well as Saudi talents Abdullah Al Sadhan, Sumaya Rida, and Yagoub Alfarhan, among others.

The international turnout is perhaps evidence that three years in, the festival is steadfast in its aim of becoming a landmark film event that is not limited to the region.

Saudi cinema is taking the festival’s spotlight with unprecedented splendour. In a first for the event, a Saudi work was screened as the opening film. Directed by Yasir Alyasiri, Hwjn is a fantasy romance that tells the story of a jinn who falls in love with a human girl just as he comes to learn of his royal lineage. The film stars Baraa Alem, Nour Alkhadra, Naif Aldaferi and Mansour Ash.

The screening kicks off a programme that will feature 130 films from 77 countries. Held under the theme Your Story, Your Festival, the event will feature 35 world premieres, 20 Arab premieres and 60 from the Mena region.

What’s significant is the number of films that were submitted to the festival, increasing more than threefold from last year – from 426 to 1,400 films. Highlights at the festival include Tunisian filmmaker and former footballer Dhafer L'abidine’s To My Son; Algerian filmmaker Maiwenn’s period drama Jeanne du Barry, which stars Depp; British-Palestinian filmmaker Farah Nabulsi’s The Teacher; Iraqi filmmaker Halkawt Mustafa’s Hiding Saddam Hussein; Emirati filmmaker Humaid Alsuwaidi’s Dalma, among others.

“We are privileged to be in the presence of remarkable talents, not only from Saudi Arabia, but also the Arab world, Africa and the world beyond,” Jomana Al-Rashid, chairwoman of the Red Sea Film Festival Foundation, said at the opening. “Through their art, we will be taken on a journey of self-discovery.”

Al-Rashid also touched upon the Red Sea Fund’s efforts in bolstering new voices in film, saying the initiative is supporting more than 250 filmmakers globally.

“These are 250 stories that would have gone untold, 250 journeys that would have gone unexplored and 250 filmmakers that would have been undiscovered,” she said. “We have also had eight titles in the official selection of the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.”

While supporting new voices is a cornerstone of the event, the festival also takes measures to honour long-standing contributions to global cinema. At the opening ceremony, Bollywood superstar Ranveer Singh was awarded the Gold Yusr Honorary Award for his work, as was German Inglourious Basterds actress Diane Kruger and Al Sadhan, who is best known for his work in Tash ma Tash, Asweed's Return and No Filter.

“I have been waiting for this for 35 years,” Al Sadhan said in an emotional speech while accepting the award.

The Saudi actor reflected on the hardships those in the film industry encountered over the past few decades and dedicated the award to all those who helped form Saudi drama during a time when there was virtually no support. He also said it was invigorating to see how quickly the industry was developing since the ban on cinemas was lifted in 2018.

Kruger, meanwhile, also said she was touched by the recognition and hoped that if “one little girl was watching tonight then maybe she will be inspired to tell her story.”

“Now more than ever is the time to tell female-led stories,” she said. “The world is so divided and we as a community of filmmakers and actors have the opportunity to promote diversity, inclusivity and equality.”

Singh, for his part, said he was honoured to have received the award from Stone and in the presence of Depp, an actor who he looked up to since the beginning of his career. He also said he was touched to be part of the list of Gold Yusr Honorary Award recipients, which includes many of his heroes, including Shah Rukh Khan and Jackie Chan.

Finally, as the ceremony formally introduced the jury for its various competitions, Australian director Baz Luhrmann, who is presiding over the main features competition jury, said he had visited Saudi Arabia before officially accepting to be part of the festival.

“About six months ago, I had a very quiet trip here to Jeddah,” he said. “What I learnt was amazing to me. There were no cinemas for 35 years, but five years ago, suddenly it burst into life again. And in a short five years such a vibrant and exciting film culture is with us.

“But what was really exciting was to meet with the young filmmakers, the young men and young women and their aspirations and their desire to tell their stories.”

The Academy Award-nominated director, who has made films such as Moulin Rouge, The Great Gatsby and Elvis, will be presiding a jury that also includes Kinnaman, Pinto, Egyptian actress Amina Khalil and Vega. The Red Sea: Shorts competition, meanwhile, will be judged by Saudi filmmaker Hana Alomair, French-Moroccan actor Assaad Bouab and Turkish-German director and screenwriter Fatih Akin.

“The value of the Saudi film industry is becoming a recognisable force,” said Mohammed Al Turki, chief executive of the Red Sea Film Festival Foundation.

“Today we are the number one box office destination in the Middle East, with more than 600 screenings in less than six years. When it comes to production, we have a growing number of studios and soundstages in some of the most in-demand locations in the world, such as AlUla and Neom. What makes us most proud is the nurturing of new talent across the Arab world, Africa and Asia.

“Over the course of the next 10 days, we invite you to experience the works of both professionals and new voices,” Al Turki said. “We will continue writing a new story globally. Welcome to the Red Sea International Film Festival. Your Story, Your Festival.”

Updated: December 01, 2023, 10:04 AM