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The winds of change: On Saudi Arabia's first ever film festival

The first Red Sea Film Festival will take place between 12 and 21 March

Soha Hesham , Saturday 22 Feb 2020
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Headed by Mahmoud Sabbagh as Festival Director and CEO, and chaired by the Saudi Minister of Culture Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan Al-Saud, the first Red Sea Film Festival (RSFF, 12-21 March) will open with the Saudi filmmakers the Godus Brothers’ Shams Al-Maaref (The Book of Sun) in its world premiere. The promotional poster even features Saudi ballerina Samira Alkhamis.

Aiming to drive regional cinema as well as promote the Saudi film industry and curate the best of world cinema with a focus on the global south, the RSFF includes cash prizes totalling $350,000: $250,000 for films In Competition and $100,000 as part of the Bait Al Montage post-production fund, which supports up to six Arab films as part of the Red Sea Souk, the Festival’s Industry Days (13-17 March). The RSFF is also partnering with the Cairo International Film Festival to offer the opportunity for a project-in-development from the Cairo Film Connection to attend the Red Sea Souk.

The RSFF is also launching The Red Sea Lodge: “The New Arab Wave”, a script & feature lab in collaboration with the TorinoFilmLab. It is dedicated to supporting emerging talent by selecting 12 Arab projects with at least six by Saudi filmmakers to participate in a five-month support programme with industry experts and two $500,000 awards. There is also the Tamheed Fund, which grants $500,000 to each of two new Saudi feature films (The Book of Sun and Forty Years and a Night by Faris Godus and Mohammed Alholayyil this year). Yet another initiative is to encourage the production of six short films by Saudi female filmmakers with the sum of $400,000 funding.

The festival team includes: Artistic Director Hussain Currimbhoy, the former documentary programmer at the Sundance Film Festival; Managing Director Shivani Pandya Malhotra, a former team member of the Dubai International Film Festival; Director of the Arab Programme Antoine Khalife;  Director of Marketing and Communications Samaher Mously; and Head of Operations Ibrahim Modir.

Among the RSFF’s honorees is the Saudi photographer and cinematographer Safouh Naamani (1926-2016), an icon of colour photography in Saudi Arabia whose rare 35-minute colour documentary The Pilgrimage to Mecca (1963) featuring footage of Jeddah dating back to 1954 will be screened.

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Also honoured is the renowned Egyptian filmmaker Khairy Beshara, nine of whose films – Floater Number 70 (1982), The Collar and the Bracelet (1986), Sweet Day, Bitter Day (1988), Crab (1990), Ice Cream In Gleam (1992), Strawberry War (1993), and Traffic Light (1995) – were restored by the Red Sea Film Festival Foundation, part of whose aim is to preserve the Arab cinematic legacy.

Other honorees include Jack Lang, former French Minister of Culture, Kim Dong-ho, founder of South Korea’s Busan Film Festival, and Daniela Michel, founding director of the Morelia International Film Festival in Mexico. Three Gold Yusr awards will be presented at the opening ceremony of the Red Sea Film Festival on March 12 to the three of honorees.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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