Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea International Film Festival announces line-up

The event will open with ‘Cyrano’ by British director Joe Wright, starring Peter Dinklage

The line-up for the inaugural Red Sea International Film Festival has been announced.

Saudi Arabia’s first major film festival, established three years ago, will return to the Unesco World Heritage Site of Jeddah Old Town, bringing together the best new work in world cinema with new voices from the kingdom.

Overall, 138 films from 67 countries are scheduled to play to audiences across the 10-day festival, including 25 world premieres. It runs from December 6 to 15.

The festival opens with Cyrano, the latest film from British director Joe Wright (Atonement). Written by Erica Schmidt, based on her 2018 stage musical, it’s a reimagining of the classic 1897 play Cyrano De Bergerac, a tale of shyness and love.

Cyrano stars Game of Thrones’ Peter Dinklage as the titular lovelorn wordsmith who helps the handsome, tongue-tied Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr) woo the beautiful Roxanne (Haley Bennett) with a string of love letters.

Other major titles playing include Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter, which took Best Screenplay at the Venice Film Festival in September and stars Olivia Colman, Dakota Johnson and Jessie Buckley in an intriguing story of motherhood and loss.

The period drama The Colour Room will unspool, starring Bridgerton’s Phoebe Dynevor as the ceramics artist Clarice Cliff.

Ana Lily Amirpour, best known for A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, will present fantasy-thriller Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon. Starring Kate Hudson, the New Orleans-set film will also play in the International Spectacular section.

Three major Arab films take centre stage in the Gala strand. Set in the backstreets of an Amman neighbourhood, the pulsating thriller The Alleys is the directorial debut of writer-director Bassel Ghandour, who previously wrote and produced the 2014 First World War drama Theeb.

It will be followed by Memory Box, co-directed and written by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, a highly personal drama that reflects on those who escaped the Lebanese Civil War. Also playing will be Nabil Ayouch’s rap drama Casablanca Beats, the first Moroccan dramatic film to play in competition at the Cannes Film Festival. The screening will be followed by a live performance from five young rappers from the movie.

The festival will close with the world premiere of Bara El Manhag, from Egyptian director Amr Salama, who previously co-directed the award-winning documentary Tahrir 2011: The Good, The Bad & The Politician. His latest film, starring Maged El-Kidwani, Rubi and Asma Abul-Yazid, is a light-hearted fantasy about an orphan child who decides to break into a haunted house, only to befriend the ghost he finds inside.

Sixteen films from around the globe will play in the Red Sea Competition, bringing together established directors and new voices. Among those filmmakers who will compete for the Golden Yusr Award is Palestinian-born Hany Abu-Assad, whose 2005 film Paradise Now was nominated for an Oscar. His latest film, Huda’s Salon, is a feminist thriller, and follows a young mother named Reem (Maisa Abd Elhadi) whose journey to a salon in Bethlehem turns into a nightmare when she is blackmailed by the owner.

Iranian debut director Panah Panahi, son of the acclaimed filmmaker Jafar Panahi, will also compete in the section with his acclaimed debut Hit the Road, which has been named Best Film at the BFI London Film Festival. A rambunctious road movie, it stars Hassan Madjooni and Pantea Panahiha as the parents, who are undertaking a hazardous – and sometimes heartwarming – journey with their children through Iran in a borrowed car.

Other filmmakers competing include several from the Mena region. Farha is the feature debut from Jordanian filmmaker Darin Sallam. A story set in 1948 Palestine, it focuses on a girl, 14, hiding out in a locked cellar as war erupts in her village. Ali Suliman, who also features in Huda’s Salon, co-stars.

Writer-director Samir Nasr’s prison drama, Sharaf, receives its world premiere at the festival, adapted from the novel of the same name by acclaimed Egyptian writer Sonallah Ibrahim.

Another world premiere in the section is Al Hadi Ulad-Mohand’s Moroccan drama Life Suits Me Well, which was one of 14 films playing in the festival to receive a grant from the Red Sea Fund.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates-December 12, 2012; Haifaa Al Mansour Director of the movie "Wadjda" pose during the Photocall at the Dubai International Film Festival in Dubai . (  Satish Kumar / The National )

The festival will also celebrate women in film, with two very special talents being honoured. The first is Saudi filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour, best known for her debut, Wadjda, the first feature film to be shot entirely in the kingdom. She has since gone on to scale the international filmmaking scene, recently directing Ethan Hawke in TV miniseries The Good Lord Bird.

The second honouree is acclaimed Egyptian actress Laila Eloui. Best known for her roles in I Love Cinema and Girl’s Love, she will join the festival for a masterclass to unpack her fascinating career.

Other scheduled guests will include French cinema icon Catherine Deneuve and Egyptian actress and singer Yousra, whose incredible body of work stretches to more than 80 films. She will grace a masterclass to discuss her distinguished career, one that has earned her more than 50 awards from festivals around the globe. The often-controversial work of Argentinian-French director Gaspar Noe, whose latest film, Vortex, had its premiere to much acclaim earlier this year in Cannes, will also be under discussion in what promises to be a fascinating in-conversation.

The festival has also made good on its promise to showcase emerging filmmakers, with a Short Competition in which 18 films will compete. A mix of animation and live action, eight of which are by female filmmakers, it will include the shorts Space Woman, the story of a retiring teacher in Tripoli from Lebanese-French director Hadi Mousally; animated tale The Pyramid, from Egyptian filmmaker Mohamed Ghazala, about a man trying to build an inverted pyramid; and refugee tale Zawal from Saudi Arabian director Mujtaba Saeed.

There are a host of other sections for audiences to dive into, including Red Sea Treasures, Red Sea Immersive and Red Sea Episodic, but also the Red Sea Souk, a film market for producers, distributors and sales agents to connect across the region. As inaugural events go, it looks to be a tempting prospect for the film-savvy public and industry players alike.

Red Sea International Film Festival runs from December 6-15. More information is available at redseafilmfest.com

Updated: November 9th 2021, 1:28 PM