INTERVIEW: Parting the sea

Nahed Nasr , Tuesday 4 Oct 2022

Three years into supporting Saudi and Arab film projects, what has the Red Sea Film Festival achieved? Nahed Nasr spoke to Antoine Khalife, the festival’s Arab Programme director.

Parting the sea
Parting the sea


Next December, the second Red Sea Film Festival (RSFF) will kick off, but the year 2022 marks the third in the festival’s plan to support Saudi and Arab cinema. Despite the delay in its 2020 launch due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Red Sea Foundation announced in the same year the winning film projects on one of its film support platforms, the Red Sea Lodge, which continues its work this year for the third year in a row.

The RSFF has three main platforms supporting Saudi, Arab, and African film projects: The Red Sea Lodge was launched in 2020, The Film Fund which was launched last year, along with The Red Sea Market. The support in these platforms varies between direct financial and technical  support for projects in the development, production and post-production stage, through the Film Fund, or by providing creative support in cooperation with Arab and international experts to develop film projects at the Red Sea Lodge, or through connecting filmmakers, producers and distributors through the Red Sea Market.

 For this year the Red Sea Fund announced it would be backing over 100 directors, with grants totalling 14 million US dollars, supporting film projects from development to post-production. The Red Sea Lodge, in cooperation with Torino Film Lab, is an intensive creative and professional training programme open to selected  Saudi and Arab film projects for creative and professional mentorship and development. The Lodge is an integrated programme that includes workshops under the supervision of international experts in the fields of directing, photography, sound and editing. At the end of the training programme both a Saudi and an Arab project win a production grant. However, the Red Sea Market which runs alongside the festival offers comprehensive industry programmes and brings the opportunity to connect with the Arab film scene as it provides unbeatable access to the new Saudi scene, as well as the best of the Arab market.

Antoine Khalife, the director of the RSFF Arab Program me and RSFF Lodge selection committee member is a prominent member of the festival team, as he witnessed its birth from the postponed launch in 2020 until now. He is also comprehensively aware of the film support strategies, what they have achieved in three years, and  what future plans are in the light of changes on the Arab film festival scene.

 Regarding the abrupt halt of this year’s El Gouna Film Festival, one of the few Arab festivals that provide support for film projects, Antoine Khalife says that this has not in any way affected the RSFF’s film support strategy. “We have not, for example, taken any new measures to deal with the absence of El Gouna,” though, as Khalifa adds, it is not possible to ignore the growing number of film projects this year, compared to last year, which was the first for the Red Sea Film Fund. But he attributes rising demand to a greater understanding of the Red Sea Film Fund’s goals and mechanisms. “The number of film projects submitted this year exceeded 700 projects in the development, production and post-production stages. The fund supported 37 projects, in the development cycle and the first post-production cycle. Still remaining are two more cycles, the production cycle and the second post-production cycle.”

 But the Red Sea Film Fund, which was launched last year, with the actual first edition of the festival, is not the only film support platform at the RSFF. During 2020, despite the postponement of the first edition due to the pandemic, Antoine says, the festival supported the production of five films that were in post production: Daughters of Abdul Rahman by the Jordanian Zaid Abu Hamdan, Amira by the Egyptian Mohamed Diab, and three Saudi Films: Becoming, directed by five Saudi female directors, The Sun of Gnosis by Faris Godus, and Forty Years and a Night by Mohammed Alholayyil.

 Also in 2020, the first cycle of the Red Sea Film Lodge saw six Arab and six Saudi film projects being developed, including Inchalla it’s a Boy by Jordanian director Amjad Alrasheed, and I Am Arzé by Lebanese director Mira Shaib. “Both are already filmed and we hope to have them with us over the next year,” according to Khalife. There is also A Journey of Bullets and Bread by Egyptian director Mohamed Hammad, which has not yet been filmed, as well as Scheherazade Goes Silent by Amira Diab, The Wind Also Sings by Hadi Ghandour, and The Arabic Interpreter by Iraqi director Ali Kareem. Six Saudi films were also supported in the first cycle of the Red Sea Lodge: Practicing Polygamy by Malak Qouta, Basma by Fatima Albanawi, which is currently being filmed in collaboration with Egyptian producer Mohamed Hefzy, Four Acts of Disruption by Hussam Alhulwah, When the Star Goes Down by Mohammed Salman Alsaffar, Hajj to Disney by Maha Alsaati, and Sharshaf by Hend Alfahhad.

 Khalife believes many goals have already been achieved, in the short term, by RSFF’s various film support platforms. “There are many films that face the dilemma of waiting for two years or more due to the lack of sufficient production support. And that’s what we’ve been able to tackle, I think successfully, in such a short period of time. For example, this year the RSFF provided production support for four films which were in advanced stages, and this led to their completion and their selection for official screening at the Venice International Film Festival.”  Those are Dirty, Difficult, Dangerous by Lebanese director Wissam Charaf, Hanging Gardens by Iraqi director Ahmed Al-Daradji, Queens by Moroccan director Yasmine Benkiran, and The Last Queen by Algerian directors Adila Bendimerad and Damien Ounouri.

 Antoine adds that, among the projects RSFF has supported since their initial stages, is Harka. Also known as Before Spring by the American director of Egyptian descent Lotfy Nathan. The film was officially selected at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival for the Un Certain Regard section, with the film’s lead, Adam Bessa being jointly awarded the Best Actor award. The same goes for Ashkal by Tunisian director Youssef Chebbi.

But such support, according to Khalife, is not limited to direct production funding, but also includes the development of film projects in cooperation with experts. With regard to Saudi films, there is great development taking place on the treatments and screenplays of Saudi directors’ film projects. “This is very important and there is a great need for it. It is done either through the lodge, where the film projects are developed with the help of experts, or through direct support from the filmmakers,” he explains.

 Khalife points out that one of important and noticeable achievement is the presence of Saudi film projects in the Arab film market. There was an important interaction between Saudi filmmakers and producers from all over the Arab world, including Egyptian producers, who were able to meet Saudi directors at RSFF. In other words, Saudi cinema has gained a place on the Arab film market, bypassing its narrow local framework thanks to RSFF. “Egyptian producers such as Hossam Alwan and Mohamed Hefzy are cooperating with Saudi filmmakers in various forms, including developing scenarios and treatments, and this is very important for the development of the local film scene here. The festival bridged the gap between Saudi talents and Arab filmmakers,” Khalife adds.

 Interacting with nearby cinemas but outside local borders, according to Antoine, not only means developing film writing skills, but also enriches film content with issues closer to the local reality, as compared to interacting with more distant cinemas. For example, Antoine points out that the majority of Saudi film projects used to belong to the horror and thriller genre. Perhaps this is due to the younger generation being more influenced by YouTube and social media.

“However, we have noticed that Saudi projects are slowly drawing closer to the daily reality of society, especially for female film directors. Ninety percent of Saudi women directors’ films are related to daily life. But in general the situation is changing for the better and the talented youth is improving. In the next RSFF, the film programme will have Saudi films that are different, subjective, and artistic, and which transcend the borders of the country and the region, because they express human content.”

 As for outside Saudi Arabia, Khalife says the projects coming from all over the Arab world may contribute to drawing a relative map of the orientations and tendencies of Arab filmmakers, and their artistic and personal reality at the present time.

 Khalife says that the trends of filmmakers in the Arab world are similar to waves, which differ from one country to another, “For example, last year there was an active, impressive, different, prolific and striking cinematic movement in Jordan, which appeared in the projects which interacted with identity, women’s issues and with non-traditional, fresh and creative types of films. While this year the abundance and novelty come from the Maghreb , from Morocco and Tunisia in particular.” he explains.

 However, there is a general feeling, in his words,  that filmmakers after the Arab Spring do not feel that much has been done. This appears in Tunisian films in particular, which are full of anger and feelings of betrayal. As for the films coming from Morocco this year, for example, it is interesting that the filmmakers deal with traditional and old themes but in a fresh, new and really exciting way. There is also a feeling that issues that have been open since time immemorial are still open and unresolved, and there is a desire on the part of  filmmakers to re-approach them but with a contemporary sense and cinematic language. “Film directors in the Arab world have are feeling let down, but this in particular represents a kind of challenge, where they manage to invent new tools and treatments.”

 On the other hand, Kalife says that the projects coming from Egypt reflect a statute of limitations, meaning that good ideas do not reach their potential. “As if the frame is narrower than the ideas. Perhaps there is a need for filmmakers in Egypt to crystallise auteur cinema in a way that allows for wide spaces and far horizons that suit creative ideas.”

While RSFF belongs to the Gulf region, Khalife says the number of film projects coming from the Gulf is negligible. “Perhaps the suspension of the Dubai Film Festival has led to a state of frustration among filmmakers in the Gulf countries,” Khalife speculates. He considers having a platform within each country to link filmmakers to the industry, to filmmaking and filmmakers abroad and at home is vital. “The Dubai Film Festival used to be this platform, and its sudden absence affected the filmmakers there. A filmmaker needs partners and collaborators to grow, as a director cannot develop alone.”

 Khalife hopes that Saudi cinema will prove itself in the region and in the world, as a cinema that reflects the reality of its makers. “I hope that Saudi cinema will follow in the footsteps of Tunisian and Lebanese cinema, in terms of quantity and quality,” he says. “I also hope that cooperation between Saudi cinema and the region will deepen, especially with Egyptian cinema, because there is a strong relationship between the Saudis and Egypt and between Saudi filmmakers and the Egyptian film industry. There is a kind of positive obsession,” he explains, saying that he hopes that there will be cooperation in joint work on various projects and films that are not limited to commercial films. This, according to him, will create an important cinematic wave in both countries. He believes that the support provided by RSFF to Saudi filmmakers will add a lot to this cooperation, as there are currently three Egyptian producers working alongside Saudi directors who have received support from RSFF.

“In any case, I am optimistic that if Saudi cinema continues at the current pace, it will carve out a distinguished position for itself in the near future. The Red Sea Film Festival is part of that.”  

*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 October, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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