Film festivals are largely seen as liberal spaces, but Saudi Arabia is among the more culturally conservative and politically repressive countries on Earth. So how do these two truths marry up? On the eve of the event’s lineup announcement, we checked in with festival managing director Shivani Pandya Malhotra to talk about the challenges and opportunities that come with hosting a global event in the controversial state.
The former Dubai Film Festival MD had been set to oversee the festival’s inaugural edition last March but, like so many events, it was cancelled due to the pandemic. The festival, hosted in the port city of Jeddah, instead will run next month between December 6-15.
Jeddah is known primarily as a commercial hub and gateway for pilgrimages to the Islamic holy cities Mecca and Medina, but there are also a handful of resort hotels with beaches. The festival itself will take place in the Al-Balad district, which dates to the seventh century.
So far the festival has announced its Saudi, Arab Spectacular and classics lineups. The competition and international strands will be revealed Tuesday.
Organizers were at the Cannes and Venice festivals this year as they continued to drum up support. But inevitably, there remains uncertainty from many about how to approach the festival. Some want to support the growing cinema ambitions of the country and its local creatives, others see a financial opportunity, many remain concerned by the country’s poor human rights record, including the shocking state-sponsored murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
There have been political and societal gains in Saudi Arabia over the last three years, notably in terms of women’s rights, but the country is still deeply patriarchal. Sexual, religious and political plurality is virtually non-existent. Should that stop people from traveling to the event to be part of cultural change? Is there genuine cultural change at play here or is it an instance of state-sponsored image-laundering/culture washing? Can the unpalatable actions of a government be separated from the ambitions of a state sponsored festival? We touch on some of these and other topics with Pandya.
DEADLINE: How have preparations been going?
SHIVANI PANDYA MALHOTRA: We have lots to do, and lot has already been done. It’s going to be momentous. A lot of people are intrigued. We’re looking forward to having everyone across to the festival. We will have more than 115 films from 65 countries. The competition is focused on films from Asia, Africa and the Arab world. We’re very excited about the Arab lineup, which is very strong. We will have a great program. The industry will have a lot to uncover.
DEADLINE: To what extent was it a challenge getting the movies you wanted?
MALHOTRA: There has been an abundance of films available. A lot of the Arab festivals happen in a row. We were able to have good conversations with the Cairo Film Festival, for example. We have largely got what we wanted.
DEADLINE: And in terms of talent?
MALHOTRA: We’re doing well and conversations have been good. We’ve locked in a few people. There have been the obvious travel concerns due to Covid. Saudi Arabia has been very strict and has controlled its borders very well. The country only has around 45 cases in the entire country at the moment. There are PCR tests pre-flight and we’ll have PCR testing at the festival. Visitors to the country need an app that allows access to restaurants and the public venues.
DEADLINE: What are the Covid restrictions at the moment?
MALHOTRA: The country’s regulations are that you have to be double vaccinated to enter. We will get certain exemptions, potentially. There are PCR tests pre-flight and we’ll have PCR testing at the festival. Visitors to Saudi need an app that allows access to restaurants and the public venues. There won’t be distancing in the cinemas.
DEADLINE: To what extent is the lineup English-language, and how many U.S. films will you have?
MALHOTRA: Quite a few. We have a nice selection, both of independent and studio films. We have an International Spectacular section and a Best Of The Fest strand. We’ve got a few new films that haven’t been on the circuit.
DEADLINE: Have you spoken to the U.S. studios much?
MALHOTRA: Yes, it’s been great. We’ve spoken to most people. There have been a lot of questions. Having one-on-one chats with people has allowed us to clarify the many misapprehensions people have. We had the studios come down to visit us here in Saudi Arabia the week before last. We have a couple of studio films in the lineup. I expect that in the next one or two years we’ll have all studios with a presence here in one way or another. The Saudi market is growing and has huge promise. There is a population of more than 33 million people, and more than 2,400 screens are planned in the next few years alone. [There are also a growing number of international film projects shooting in the country, including horror movie Cello starring Jeremy Irons and upcoming Gerard Butler action pic Kandahar].
DEADLINE: So you had U.S. teams come down from the studios?
MALHOTRA: It was primarily the international teams of the studios. I think we will have some U.S. delegates attend from the studios. It’s about getting to know the local players and exhibitors. Some want to see the films, some want to explore other collaborations.
DEADLINE: How is the quality of movies from Saudi Arabia at the festival?
MALHOTRA: There has been a high quality to the movies coming out of the region this year. We have six features from Saudi Arabia, and 27 Saudi films in total including the shorts. The level of production taking place here is improving all the time.
DEADLINE: And in terms of the number of women directors?
MALHOTRA: Across the program, I believe it is around 30%-35%. Of the Saudi short films, eight of 18 are by women, and in the Saudi feature film lineup announced today, 3/7 of the features are by female directors.
DEADLINE: What kind of budget are you working with and can you tell us about facilities?
MALHOTRA: We can’t disclose that, but it’s a healthy budget. We’ve been able to deliver what we’ve wanted to. We’re hosting filmmakers, we’re located in the UNESCO world heritage site of Al-Balad. We’re creating an entire pop-up ecosystem of market and cinema venues. It’s very atmospheric. In terms of venues, we have a cineplex that is custom built and another location. We have two locations in total. Guests all stay in hotels in the city close by to the festival HQ.
DEADLINE: Most of your funding is from the government, is that right?
MALHOTRA: Actually, a lot is also from sponsorship. We are reliant on the local Ministry of Culture, of course, like most festivals around the world. But we’ve had an aggressive sponsorship plan and the plan is to make us more reliant on sponsorship as the editions progress. Most of our sponsors are regional this edition.
DEADLINE: Do you expect Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman or any member of the royal family to attend the festival?
MALHOTRA: I’m not aware of any conversation like that at the moment.
DEADLINE: Eternals recently was banned in Saudi Arabia and neighboring countries, reportedly due to homosexual elements in the movie. To what extent are there restrictions on the movies you want to show?
MALHOTRA: I think people should come and see the films and let us know…We are sensitive to the environment but we don’t have any restrictions. We’ll be showing films in their entirety. We will be sensitive to the culture around us but we have curated the films we wanted to. We’re presenting what we wanted to and pushing boundaries in our lineups, including in the Arab selection.
DEADLINE: So how does it work that Eternals isn’t allowed to be shown in the country but you have carte blanche? That seems slightly at odds…
MALHOTRA: I don’t think it is. It was like that in Dubai also. We were sensitive to the cultural environment. The idea was to try to get audiences to accept and feel comfortable watching films from different countries and contexts. That’s part of the job of a festival, to widen people’s mind-sets, to showcase diversity. It’s a matter of time, change happens gradually.
DEADLINE: Is it a fair assumption that there won’t be films that feature homosexuality in them?
MALHOTRA: I think you should come to the festival and see for yourself…
DEADLINE: In terms of local cultural norms, what restrictions will there be on what people can wear at the festival and how people should behave? [Saudi Arabia is one of a handful of countries in the world with a total ban on alcohol, for example.]
MALHOTRA: Public displays of affection are not common in the entire Gulf region. People should be careful about that, whatever sexuality you are. In terms of clothing, we recommend people dress modestly. Women don’t have to cover their hair. But there aren’t dos and don’ts as such.
DEADLINE: If you’re homosexual, are you welcome at the Red Sea Film Festival?
MALHOTRA: Everyone’s welcome.
DEADLINE: What would you say to those who are hesitant or skeptical about attending for political or cultural reasons?
MALHOTRA: For me, the most exciting thing is seeing the talent in Saudi. They’re ready to go and want to take on the world. It’s exciting when you see this talent and consider how long they’ve been waiting. I want people to come and mix with the filmmaking community here. We’re here to open doors for them. I believe that once people come here – I know there are many misapprehensions about what Saudi Arabia is like – they will find out how it really is.
DEADLINE: In terms of future editions, what can we expect?
MALHOTRA: We run our Red Sea Lodge program and we’re looking at setting up one or two additional labs. We’re trying to become a year round proposition in terms of funding and helping filmmakers and we’ll have more funding decision to announce soon. We’re looking to include African filmmakers in that as well as Saudi and regional filmmakers. We had an overwhelming response to our call for submissions, more than 600 films.
DEADLINE: Do you have a long-term contract at the festival?
MALHOTRA: I have a year-by-year contract, which is quite standard in the region.