A film festival is about more than just the films and the festival center. It is about the location, the journey, the experience. Here on Deadline we’ll be bringing you updates on what it’s like to be on the ground at the inaugural Red Sea International Film Festival, Saudi Arabia’s first ever film festival.
I’m more than halfway into my stay in Saudi Arabia for the Red Sea International Film Festival and what is becoming more apparent with each day that passes is that what this first-time event lacks in experience and organization, it makes up for in ambition.
The first few days in Jeddah were chaotic to say the least as festivalgoers struggled to navigate their way through this inaugural event. The festival has a huge number of staff working at various checkpoints. There are designated desks at the festival hotels with staff waiting to help. The main hub of the event, which is in Jeddah’s 1,400-year-old historic quarter Al-Balad, is also not short of staff. Most are young and keen to help, even if they don’t always seem to know the answers to your questions or the whereabouts of main festival locations.
Encouragingly, I don’t think I’ve ever been to a festival where I’ve seen quite so many women working. The push for women in the workplace is happening in real time at this festival. We hope this remains the case after the international travelers have returned home and that it extends to other sectors here.
Transportation has been an ongoing problem for many guests. Most delegates are staying at several hotels around the city, some a 20-minute car journey away from the main festival headquarters. RSIFF has designated event cars and buses for guests but they either seem to be missing or are booked for “someone else.” I’ve been told by people close to the festival that a lot of the disorganization is down to staff being pulled in last minute to work at the F1 motor racing event last week coupled with 50% more attendees than expected. I’ve heard that there are more than 3,000 registered attendees, when expectations were around 1,500.
That said, I’ve resorted to taking Ubers everywhere, which has been much more convenient and has afforded me the opportunity to meet real locals (although a few of the journeys would test the nerve of even the most experienced travelers, with a few drivers insisting on showing me YouTube clips on their phones as they navigate the highways).
My driver this morning, a native from Mecca who spoke perfect English, took me down to the historic district and expressed how happy he was that the festival was happening in the city as hopefully it would open Saudi Arabia up to the world. When I asked if he felt real change was underway in his country, he said “absolutely.” The last few years, in his opinion, have been a welcome move forward for the population and he, like the rest of his male counterparts, were happy to see women driving and women in the workplace.
He was an avid film lover and both of us spent most of the 15-minute journey discussing our love of Christopher Nolan movies. We compared our favorite films from the director (his Interstellar, mine Inception) and then it dawned on me that due to the 35-year-old religion-related cinema ban (that was only lifted in 2018), he wouldn’t have been able to see either of these in the cinema. It was a sobering thought and a privilege I have certainly taken for granted as a Westerner.
The Saudis are some of the warmest, most hospitable and curious people I’ve ever met. Whether local or at the festival, there isn’t a sense that someone is trying to impress me because I’m a Western journalist. Having been to quite a few festivals in the region before – Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha – something here in Jeddah feels more organic and it has taken me a few days to realize this and digest it.
Some of my preconceptions I had coming into this festival have dissolved. The juxtaposition between people here and the conservative government is apparent. I still find it hard to forget that LGBTQ+ rights are non-existent here, however. The ongoing human rights infringements associated with Saudi Arabia hit home once again this week as news filtered through from Paris that France had arrested one of the alleged suspects in the Jamal Khashoggi killing.
I attended last night’s premiere of Becoming at the impressive, newly built Red Sea Gala Theatre. The film is a collation of five shorts directed by five Saudi women directors, all with strong women-centered narratives set in the country. The theatre was packed with a mix of locals and delegates, and you could feel the anticipation in the air. Everyone clapped at the end of each short, no one left the cinema – there was a genuine sense of pride amongst the crowd. Let’s not forget that this would not have been possible even just four years ago.
As the days pass, people seem to be getting into more of a groove with things. Staff and guests appear to be coming to grips with how things work, where things are and what expectations need to be met. The Red Souk, the industry component of the festival, has been busy since it opened yesterday. I’ve overheard a few conversations between American producers and young Saudi producers discussing how they can work together and what the logistics would entail to bring an overseas production here.
No festival would be complete without a few laughable experiences, and here I’ve had plenty. I will certainly never forget being accidentally locked in a room at the festival’s Media Center during an interview, which resulted in the door having to be kicked down. Nor will I forget following signs for the press area for another interview, only to be directed to a construction site.
When I pull into my hotel in an Uber, the guards continually check the trunks of cars. When I asked my last driver why that was, he said they were checking for alcohol. I thought it might have been something more sinister.
One London-based exec told me yesterday that what stands out about Saudi Arabia is they are less talk and more action compared to their regional counterparts. “They are actually building this infrastructure and industry,” he said.
So far, the consensus seems to be a positive but curious one. Despite the bloopers, delegates mostly seem mindful of the fact that this is a first-time festival in a country that has only reintroduced cinema to its people in the last four years. There is a feeling of goodwill. They are trying. There is ambition. They are building the infrastructure. They want their stories to be heard and isn’t cinema and storytelling a great way to break down barriers and ignite change?
But, as AGC Studios’ Stuart Ford said in a panel yesterday, “things happen here quickly and with ferocity,” and while he was referring to how speedily the country is muscling up in the film space, one wonders if it could also apply to how quickly it could disappear, as it has done in some other Middle Eastern countries. Only time will tell.
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