The first round of the Saudi Red Sea International Film Festival (RSIFF) will finally take place in the second week of December.
Originally scheduled for March 2020, it was postponed until 11 November 2021 due to the Coronavirus pandemic. It has now been pushed forward to 6 December. Initially conflicting with the 43rd Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) – it had been scheduled for 1-10 December but, following coordination efforts with RSIFF, is now taking place in 25 November-5 December – the date was a source confusion.
CIFF President Mohamed Hefzy says the new dates should aid with “a smooth transition of media, films and filmmakers between the two festivals because of their geographic proximity”. Hefzy feels that, with its enormous budget, RSIFF might be a wealthier alternative to the discontinued Dubai Film Festival, one he hopes will manage to keep going, unlike Gulf festivals that did not last.
“For sure it will attract most Arab productions, especially with its direct participation in the production of a huge number of Arab films with huge sums of money through its Film Fund.” This could be a challenge for other festivals in the region. “We cannot deny CIFF’s history, calibre of personnel and international label, nor can we deny that Egypt has had an old, large and prestigious film industry and magnificent locations, but huge effort is required for progress at this point.”
The importance of an event like RSIFF, on the other hand, are the funding opportunities it will provide. Last June the RSIFF Foundation announced a US$10 million Red Sea Fund, to back 100 full-length projects in development, production and postproduction from Africa and the Arab world, with Saudi filmmakers being able to apply for short film projects as well.
A few days later the fund was expanded by US$4 million from the Saudi Film Commission, supporting another 40 films. US$14 million is a remarkable figure which, though the news was enthusiastically received by filmmakers struggling with the consequences of the pandemic and a more general drop in production opportunities across the region, has raised questions. Will Saudi support shape the future of the industry in the region?
So far Mohamed Hammad is the only Arab filmmaker to have received RSIFF funding. Though it was to be postponed, the 2019-20 round granted him US$500 thousand to produce A Journey of Bullets and Bread which he has been able to keep. Hammad views RSIFF support very positively. He feels such work is essential considering what little interest producers and platforms have in arthouse films anyway.
“As a filmmaker what really matters to me is the extent to which support allows me to realise my vision without any intervention, pressure or direction,” he says. And that has been the case. Hammad feels Egypt’s own scene should have greater diversity, embracing a variety of approaches rather than fixed templates, which would improve distribution across platforms; the Egyptian Watch It platform would benefit from it.
The pandemic has globally impacted production anyway, he says, reducing the capacity for risk-taking even further. Despite filling the gaping void left by the Coronavirus pandemic, RSIFF funding is only making up for the many Arab film funds that have vanished from the scene. Hammad, for his part, had never received any support before, producing his work – notably the award-winning Withered Green (2017) – on his own dime. Financial considerations are one thing, but it is “my vision” that reigns supreme. RSIFF initiatives, he feels, should be seen in the context of a new generation of Saudi filmmakers who have made their mark, including Mahmoud Sabbagh, who is managing the present first round.
“Sabbagh is the director of Baraka Meets Baraka (2016), which is a revolutionary film in its context and timing.” Saudi society itself is changing, with much religious reform and cultural liberation. “These factors belie the fear that support is predicated on controlling the film. There may be motives behind the Saudis supporting cinema, but they do not affect the filmmakers’ independence or freedom – at least in my experience. I am loyal to my film,” he reiterates, “and not to a grant-maker, a production company, a festival or even myself. My loyalty is to my film. This is very clear to me.”
Producer Hossam Elouan – the force behind such films as Hawy (2010), Ali, the Goat and Ibrahim (2016), Cactus Flower (2017) and the Sudanese director Amjad Abu Alala’s You Will Die At Twenty (2019) – is keen on the Saudi initiative in several different ways. RSIFF is also funding film theatres and studios and developing integrated shooting locations as well as supporting local talent with both production support and scholarships to study abroad. “Saudi Arabia has the potential to be the largest film market in the Middle East,” Elouan says, “which could also be a very promising market for Egyptian films.”
Supporting Arab films that might make it on the festival circle, he feels, is part of a new image of Saudi Arabia as patron of the arts in the region. The quality and nature of the films selected will therefore be to the taste of Arab and international film institutions, and may even contribute to a better overall image of Arab cinema. The impact of Saudi support on Egyptian cinema, he says, is positive in every way. Many Egyptian filmmakers had refrained from submitting their work to the Doha Film Institute following tensions with Qatar, leaving them with only El Gouna Film Festival (GFF) and CIFF for funding opportunities; and both operate through a competition.
Elouan says that, after You Will Die At Twenty, he had all but lost his interest in production because opportunities were so limited. RSIFF has rekindled his enthusiasm. The problem with the Egyptian film industry is that it is purely commercial, meaning that it has little international presence. “Our first and last goal is to produce films that express our reality and our country. I participated in the production of a Sudanese film, and the film acquired Egyptian in addition to Sudanese, French, Norwegian and German citizenship. The world is open and there is no need for prejudices and unjustified fears.”
For Intishal Al Tamimi, the director of GFF, any step to support the film industry is a step forward. “And the Saudi initiative is a step forward in many ways.” The first is that it will increase the Arab share (currently only 1.5 percent) of the global film distribution market; Saudi initiatives might bring the figure to 3 or 3.5 percent. This will draw attention to the region but it will not necessarily improve the quality of the films. But Al Tamimi is optimistic about the concepts and choices of RSIFF: “The festival focuses on the new, fresh and serious cinema, as is the case in the major festivals in the region such as Cairo, El Gouna, Carthage and Marrakech. This is very important and it is a real addition.”
The selection of the festival staff, programmers and jury reflects the seriousness, impartiality and integrity of a festival prioritising artistic considerations, what is more: “There were fears that the festival would reflect other considerations, such as directly promoting the new image of Saudi Arabia, which might affect its independence, but this did not happen even though the decision to postpone the opening date from 11 November to 6 December, for example, was not made by the festival itself.”
Beyond social and cultural considerations that will not apply to productions being supported, there are no censorial guidelines or limits on what can be screened in Saudi film theatres; not all supported films will have a commercial release in Saudi Arabia. Considering this and the calibre of the juries, Al Tamimi is optimistic. RSIFF’s decision to restore the works of the great Egyptian director Khairy Bishara confirms that it is moving in the right direction.
“This is a purely artistic decision and it is very important because no other festival has the capacity to restore films. This, in addition to such huge financial support for Arab, African and Saudi films confirms that the festival’s approach is in line with the aspirations and efforts of the leading Arab festivals.”
The concern, rather, is that support will be sustained over time. RSIFF faces specific obstacles including the reluctance of some Arab and international filmmakers to link their projects to Saudi Arabia for political reasons. “There is a certain Saudi image that still exists and it will take effort to change it.” Another obstacle is social or official censorship, which may make a significant portion of them unavailable to the local public.
Considering its wealth, RSIFF may be thought to present other Arab festivals with a challenge but at least so far this has not been the case. “For El Gouna Film Festival, which has been known for its strong program from day one, I can say that this year we have the best program compared to the previous four rounds in all competitions. We also have a large number of very good projects in development and post-production, so many that we had to raise the number of accepted projects.”
Al Tamimi says that for a festival that continues to improve, like El Gouna, the danger is not competition but lack of development, absence of passion or the failure to treat each round as if it were the first.
“The presence of a festival with great potential, such as RSIFF, or a festival with a long history and a professional calibre of personnel, such as Cairo, Carthage or Marrakesh, motivates us to do more. A month and a half before the opening date, we have secured the bulk of the film program and we are moving towards the opening of the fifth round with great confidence. Perhaps my own greatest ambition since the beginning of my work in the festival is to establish a film fund, because for me that is the main component of any festival, and I hope that the right conditions for this will happen one day.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.