By Gill Pringle in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Among those gracing the dazzling red carpet were Hilary Swank, Anthony Mackie, Clive Owen, Stephen Dorff, Haifaa Al-Mansour, Laila Eloui, Yousra, Hend Sabry, Thierry Frémaux, Vincent Cassel, Michele Morrone, Yaqoub AlFarhan, Mila AlZahrani, and Yassir AlSaggaf.

Entirely unconnected with RedSeaIFF, the previous night had witnessed another first for Jeddah – the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, the first ever Formula One motor racing event to take place in the Kingdom. Another glittering event, the thrilling race was topped off by a special performance by Justin Bieber.

Meanwhile, two days earlier, French President Emmanuel Macron became the first major Western leader to visit Saudi Arabia since the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

So, what’s this all got to do with the Red Sea International Film Festival?

Everything actually.

Culture and sports, sometimes known as “Sportswashing”, are time honoured techniques to direct attention away from a nation’s poor human rights record and/or corruption scandals.

Naturally, any journalist is cynical, although in the case of RedSeaIFF, a genuine desire to showcase women in film was evident, its opening night ceremonies honouring three very different women for their extraordinary contribution to cinema, including multi award-winning Saudi Arabian filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour, Oscar and BAFTA nominated French actress Catherine Deneuve and acclaimed Egyptian actress Laila Eloui.

Saudi’s “religious police” (the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPVPV)) once patrolled public places, with vigilant volunteers strictly enforcing rules of hijab, with all Muslim women forced to wear the traditional Islamic hijab and dress in a modest manner. But with the 2016 reforms of Mohammed bin Salman, the CPVPV’s powers were drastically reduced, and banned from “pursuing, questioning, asking for identification, arresting and detaining anyone suspected of a crime”.

Certainly, there was no dress code enforced at the opening night, where film stars mingled with sexily-dressed international supermodels like Alessandra Ambrosio, Candice Swanepoel, Sara Sampaio, and Irina Shayk.

Moreover, August 2019 brought more positive change for Saudi women, when they became legally allowed to travel abroad, register a divorce or a marriage, and apply for official documents without the consent of a male guardian. While just this year, it became permissible for women to live alone without permission from a male guardian.

Older Arab filmmakers were amazed to see the extraordinary speed in which Saudi Arabia has enacted cultural change in the past three years, expressing genuine amazement as we chatted with many of them at the inaugural RedSeaIFF.

Held at Jeddah’s stunning UNESCO World Heritage Site old-town (Al Balad), nestled on the eastern shore of the Red Sea, guests later attended a post premiere party, dancing to a live performance from Wyclef Jean while drones projected light shows overhead.

A veritable Who’s Who of the Saudi film world were out in force to celebrate the landmark occasion, including Waheed Jamjoom, Hassan Assiri, Yousef Al Jarrah, Khalid Alfarraj, Yassir Alsaggaf, Ali Kalthami, Mohammed Abu Hamdan, Faisak Al Dokhy, Mohammed Aldokhy, Ibrahim AlKhairallah, Alaa Faden, Godus Brothers, Mila AlZahrani, Elham Ali & Khalid Saqr, Meshal Aljasser, Baraa Alem, Khalid Alharbi, Alanoud Saoud, Saad AbdulAziz, and Abdullah Dhahran.

The first RedSeaIFF boasts 138 feature films and shorts from 67 countries in 34 languages from both established and emerging talent, with a number of filmmakers and actors in attendance for many of the films. The slate of new Saudi films will be shown alongside the best of new international cinema, featuring 27 films from a new wave of Saudi filmmakers.

“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,” says Mohammed Al-Turki, Chairman of the RedSeaIFF Festival Committee. “Over the next ten 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.”

The festival will showcase a broad slate of new and diverse films, alongside a retrospective programme celebrating the masters of cinema as well as introducing audiences to exciting new voices from the region and beyond. The festival will provide a platform for Arab filmmakers and industry professionals from around the world to connect, host feature and short film competitions, and present a series of events, masterclasses, and workshops to support emerging talent.

The Red Sea International Film Festival will run from 6-15 December, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.


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