The inaugural Red Sea International Film Festival is one of those rare events where the theme, Waves of Change, has a wider connotational merit.
Taking place at Jeddah’s historic Al-Balad district until December 15, the festival comes at the heels of the first Saudi Arabian Grand Prix and precedes the Ad-Diriyah Biennale, the country’s first contemporary art biennale. Together, the events represent a concentrated push by Saudi Arabia to establish itself as a global cultural destination.
While major ripples of this new cultural tide could still be felt in Jeddah by the protracted roar of Formula One cars, the arrival of Arab and international celebrities for the festival has rejuvenated the wave with swank and ceremony.
Stars including Catherine Deneuve, Yousra, Clive Owen, Anthony Mackie, Mohamed Henedi, Hillary Swank arrived at the red carpet opening dressed to the nines, as did Thierry Fremaux, director of the Cannes Film Festival, and Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Culture Prince Badr bin Farhan Al-Saud.
For Saudi Arabia, the festival is a marked stride to present itself as a global name in cinema after years of abstinence. For local aspiring filmmakers, it is a long-awaited sign of support. This was the sentiment expressed by Haifaa Al Mansour during her acceptance speech after she was honoured at the festival.
In 2012, Al Mansour became the first female Saudi filmmaker with Wadjda and has since established herself on a global platform with films like Mary Shelley and television drama The Good Lord Bird.
“This is a new moment in our history as Saudis,” she said of the festival. “As a child, watching a film was a dream. Making a short film was a dream. To make a film in Saudi Arabia was a dream. And now, that I’m here being honoured among my people in the first film festival is a big moment.
"Cinema gave me my voice. As a woman, I grew up in Saudi at a time when women and culture were not at the centre. Now we are at the centre. It is a new page, we will lead the country.”
More than 100 films from around the world will be showing throughout the 10-day event.
The festival opened with Peter Dinklage's film Cyrano. Directed by Pride & Prejudice filmmaker Joe Wright, the musical takes a novel approach on the enduring love story by Edmond Rostand.
Before the film’s start, Mohammed Al Turki, chairman of the festival, said the event was a turning point in the country’s history as it begins to embrace “the waves of change”.
“It is a true honour to host such a wealth of both international and Arabic talent at our opening ceremony in a celebration of filmmaking unlike any other that the kingdom has seen before," he said. "Over the next 10 days, we will honour the very best of filmmaking from our region and beyond, and we could not have wished for a better way to begin than tonight.
"The festival is a watershed moment for our burgeoning Saudi film industry and the opening ceremony has set a high bar of what is to come in our festival’s future.”
Several films by established regional filmmakers will be making their Arab premieres at the festival, including Huda’s Salon by Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu Assad and Communion by Nejib Belkadhi. Favourites from the global festival circuit, including Haider Rashid’s Europa and Nabil Ayouch’s Casablanca Beats will also be showing, as will international spectaculars including Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast and Kabir Khan’s Bollywood film 83.
Coming in after an almost two-year delay brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, the festival seems to have been biding its time well. Theatres by Vox Cinemas have been set up around Al-Balad district, as has a concert stage in the park opposite the historic Bab Jadid. Haitian rapper Wyclef Jean threw a surprise concert at the gala event in, performing popular tracks including No Woman, No Cry and Maria Maria.
As much as the festival’s star power was a head-turner, it is Al-Balad district that inspired awe.
The area’s cobblestones paths, tall and slender palm trees, as well as picturesque facades of the old coral houses make it easy to lose yourself to your surroundings as you navigate through the festival.
The festival has brought a palpable change to the atmosphere in the district, but many things remained charmingly unperturbed by the bustle and glitz of the event. Textile shops around the area remained open, with shopkeepers curiously looking out the window from behind piles of polychrome rolls of fabrics.
Elderly dominoes players continued on with their games, as did the children who played impromptu football matches with crumbled water bottles. Every now and then they did stop their games, smiling and nodding politely and in welcome at the well-dressed passersby. More than a few times, I was asked where I had travelled from – a marked sign of excitement by the district’s dwellers at having their pocket of Jeddah visited by droves of tourists.
"It’s definitely changing,” Shabab, a taxi driver told me, dropping me off to the hotel after the opening night. “It’s been changing for the last two years. But these last two weeks, it’s been a completely different atmosphere. It’s good. We want people to come, to see not only the history of Al-Balad, but what’s possible here. Things are happening. In a few years, I’m sure I won’t even be able to keep up.”
Red Sea International Film Festival runs from December 6-15. More information is available at redseafilmfest.com