Debut Saudi Film Festival That Brought Back Ramp And Glamour Concludes

SRINAGAR: Less than four years after lifting a ban on cinemas, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s 10-day Red Carpet Film Festival in the Red Sea city of Jeddah has concluded. It witnessed the screening of 138 films from 67 countries in more than 30 languages.

Saudi filmmaker and actress Fatima Al-Banawi on stage in the concluding event of the Red Carpet Film Festival 2021 that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia hosted at Jeddah (Dec 6 -15, 2021). The festival saw majors from the global glamour and film industry, especially from the Middle East joining the event that was criticised by liberals and conservatives

The event witnessed 25 world premiers, premiers of 48 Arab films and 17 others from the Gulf region.

While the festival offered hope to the fledgling film industry of the desert kingdom, the event marked the beginning of a new chapter in the much-touted “reforms” that its new ruler, Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) has initiated. The other “reforms” include the lifting of a ban on women driving and allowing mixed-gender concerts and other events.

No More Abayas

“On December 6, actors and actresses walked the red carpet in evening wear- a far cry from the traditional black abaya that until recently was the officially mandated dress code for women,” Kuwait Times reported. “The festival opened a day after Jeddah hosted its first Formula One Grand Prix, also an attempt to portray Saudi Arabia in a different light.”

“It is a historical day in the kingdom,” French news-gatherer AFP quoted festival’s director Mohammed Al Turki as saying. He told The Arab News that the maiden event has helped them to learn many lessons and he was touched by the response the event got.

Those attending the festival included supermodel Naomi Campbell; British actor Ed Westwick; Spanish actor Maria Pedraza; Junoon writer Pedro Paula Araujo; Jack Lang, president of the Arab World Institute in Paris and a former minister of culture in France; Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore; and a number of actors from the region including Basem Khayat, Hend Sabri, Maysa Maghrabi, Ahd Kamel, Dhafer Labidine and Yasmine Sabri.

However, Rupture in which Saudi actress Sumaya Rida is in the lead role was the only Saudi feature competing on an international scale. The psychological thriller was adjudged as the Best Saudi Film and an award was presented to director Hamza Jamjoom by Campbell on the last gala night on Monday.

The festival concluded with a screening of Hindi film 83 based on the true story of the Indian cricket team’s victory over an “unbeatable” West Indies team, which helped to put India back on the cricketing map.

The festival hosted several initiatives aimed at improving the Saudi film industry and enriching the kingdom’s cinematic scene and talent development. These included talks workshops and a master-class by no other than famous Egyptian actress Yousra, tribute talks with Laila Eloui and many more activities.

The festival witnessed various fashion events. The last one saw the ramp being literally put afire by Saudi filmmaker and actress Fatima Al-Banawi with her one-shoulder look attire. Various international and regional models were part of the glamorous ramp walks.

Eye On Money

The festival has an eye on a burgeoning market for shooting and consuming films in Saudi Arabia. According to the report of multinational accountancy firm PwC, “Saudi Arabia’s annual box office could reach $950 million by 2030.”

This is the reason why the kingdom monarchs have given a go-ahead for big film projects. MBC Studios, the production arm of Saudi-owned Arab media giants MBC Group, went online in 2018 with huge budgets.  It is currently filming the action movie Desert Warrior in the Neom region, also on the Red Sea.

Criticism

The event, however, has faced music from the day it was conceived. While the conservatives in the hushed tones talked against participation, the liberals – mostly living outside the desert said it was propaganda as the country cannot sustain a proper film industry as its lacks the basics, especially the freedom of expression.

“Critics said the kingdom is using major sports and entertainment events to whitewash its poor human rights record-especially after the 2018 murder and dismemberment of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate,” the AFP reported. It quoted Saudi opposition figure Waleed Al-Hathloul saying: “When we think about Saudi, we don’t think about Khashoggi anymore but about all these events. A film festival without freedom of expression is propaganda.”

“But the gala has for months been the target of boycott calls from critics who warn that the glamour of show-business is being deployed by Saudi authorities to distract international attention from rights abuses within the country and beyond,” British newspaper The Guardian reported. “Under crown prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi officials have crushed political dissent at home and pursued critics beyond the country’s borders, most notoriously murdering journalist Jamal Khashoggi at a consulate in Turkey. The prince has also been widely condemned for directing Saudi Arabia’s intervention in the brutal civil war in Yemen, which is now enduring one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.”

Not Screened

The festival organisers decided against screening Amira, (The Princess) a hugely controversial film by Egyptian director Mohamed Diab. It was deemed “detrimental to the Palestinian cause”. The film tells the story of a young girl born from smuggled sperm while her father was languishing in Israel’s Megiddo prison. However, the girl later realizes that the sperm that was smuggled out of the jail was actually that of an Israeli soldier.

This triggered a Himalayan controversy in the region as a result of which Jordon’s Royal Film Commission of Jordan decided to withdraw the film from the 2022 Academy Awards in light of the “recent huge controversy that it is detrimental to the Palestinian cause.”

Palestinian statistics reports in the international media suggest that at least 98 babies have been born using smuggled sperm since 2012. The film would question all these births.

The Kingdom, the birthplace of Islam, had cinemas about a half-century ago when they were first brought to the country by Westerners working for California State Oil Company (later named ARAMCO).

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