The third Red Sea International Film Festival (RSIFF, 30 November-9 December) opened in Jeddah with the world premiere of the Saudi filmmaker Yasir Al-Yasiri’s feature film HWJN, starring Nour Al-Khadra, Baraa Alem, Naif Al-Daferi, Alanoud Saud, Mohsen Mansour and Shaimaa Al-Tayeb. Set in modern Jeddah, HWJN tells the story of a kind-hearted jinn of the same name who, when he discovers the truth about his royal roots, embarks on an epic journey to reclaim his rights. On the way, however, he develops an unexpected romantic attachment to Sawsan, a young medical student who happens to be human. The film is based on a novel by Ibrahim Abbas that was a best-seller in Saudi Arabia.
The RSIFF opening night was presented by the renowned TV host Raya Abi Rached and the emerging Saudi film star Ibrahim Al-Hajjaj. Present were Jomana-Al Rashid, chairwoman of the Red Sea Foundation, and Mohamed Al-Turki, CEO of the Red Sea Film Foundation. Jomana-Al-Rashid said that the third round of the RSIFF includes 126 films from 77 countries, adding, “this festival exists to provide a platform for stories that can change the world.” Mohamed Al-Turki highlighted the theme of the third round, summed up in the motto, “Your Story, Your Festival”, which the rich programme demonstrates.
The opening ceremony also included presenting three honorary Yusr awards, to the legendary Saudi actor and writer Abdullah Al-Sadhan, known for the Tash Ma Tash TV comedy (1994–2023); the German actress Diane Kruger, who was handed her award by the renowned director and RSIFF jury member Fatih Akin; and the Indian actor Ranveer Singh, who was handed his by Sharon Stone. Also present were numerous Arab and international film stars including the Saudi Yaacoub Al-Farhan, and Fatima Al-Banawi, the Egyptian Nabila Ebeid, Lebleba, Laila Eloui, Amina Khalil, Yasmine Sabri, Dina Elsherbini, as well as filmmaker Yousri Nasrallah, and the American Johnny Depp and Will Smith.
While operating on a global scale, RSIFF emphasises Saudi cinema, screening 36 feature-length and short Saudi productions. Non-Saudi highlights include the historical romance Jeanne du Barry, directed by and starring Maïwenn with Johnny Depp, Four Daughters by the Tunisian director Kaouther ben Hania which had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated as Tunisia’s submission for International Feature at the forthcoming Academy Awards (it was supported by RSIFF), Amjad Al-Rasheed’s Inshallah A Boy, Zarra Kahn’s debut In Flames, Amanda Nell Eu’s Tiger Stripes and Baloji’s Omen. Among the 11 films of the Arab Spectacular programme, as well as HWJN, are Meshal Al-Jaser’s humorous thriller NAGA, the Godus Brothers’ Fever Dream, and the Egyptian filmmaker Tamer Ruggli’s mothers-and-daughters bonanza Back to Alexandria.
Starring Nadine Labaki, Fanny Ardant, Laila Ezz Al-Arab, and Menha Al- Batraoui, the film follows Sue (Labaki), a forty-something psychotherapist who returns from Switzerland to her native Egypt to mend bridges with her eccentric, aristocratic and now dying mother Fairouz (Ardant). During her journey, she is haunted by memories and mixed feelings, arguing with Fairouz’s voice in her head as she seeks out the special places of her childhood and once again encounters the smells, sounds, colours and characters of her homeland.
In the main competition are 17 narrative and documentary feature-length films, and the jury is headed by the renowned Australian filmmaker Baz Lurhmann. The competition also includes Tawfik Al-Zaidi’s Norah, the first film to be shot entirely in the AlUla region of Saudi Arabia, the director duo Afef ben Mahmoud and Khalil Benkirane’s debut Backstage, Farah Nabulsi’s The Teacher, shot in the West Bank and starring Imogen Poots, Karim Bensalah’s Six Feet Over and Parviz Shahbazi’s Roxana.
Kaleem Aftab, the RSIFF director of International Programmes, says the main competition highlights the complexities of the modern world, where social norms are changing: “These films from Asia and Africa, including the Arab world, are a stark reminder of the many issues facing humanity today,” he says. Antoine Khalife, director of Arab Programmes and Film Classics, stresses the vibrancy of the industry in Saudi Arabia and the region: “Arab filmmakers boldly confront sensitive themes, weaving together narratives that explore family dynamics, patriotism, and the rediscovery of values. Arab cinema increasingly mirrors the realities of everyday life, and we are particularly proud to present projects by a total of 31 female filmmakers, reflecting our commitment to women in cinema.”
Egyptian films include two restored classics in the Red Sea Treasures programme: Afreet Merati (1968) by Fatin Abdel-Wahab, starring Shadia , Salah Zulfiqar, Emad Hamdi, and Adel Imam, and Victory of Youth (1941) by Ahmed Badrakhan starring Asmahan, Farid Al- Atrash, Besharah Wakim, and Anwar Wagdi. Shadia is an iconic singer and actress who appeared in over 100 films, and in this comic classic she plays Aida, a wife who feels neglected by her banker husband and begins to impersonate the movie characters she encounters at the cinema in stories the doctors tell him he must go along with. Victory of Youth was an instant classic, featuring the sibling singers Farid (also the soundtrack composer) and Asmahan playing characters very like themselves, who leave their home in the Levant to chase the dream of musical glory in Egypt.
In the short film competition there are also two Egyptian films: The Call of the Brook by Jad Chahine, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, and Smokey Eyes by Ali Ali. RSIFF also features the Arab premiere of Amr Salama’s feature length narrative Fireworks (Shamareekh) starring Asser Yassin, Amina Khalil, Khaled Al-Sawi, and Huda Al-Mufti, which tells the story of Raouf, the illegitimate son of ruthless arms dealer who works in the shadows doing his father’s dirty work and hoping one day to be recognised as family. But his real journey begins when he is told to eliminate Amina, the daughter of one of his father’s rivals.
Hajjan is another film by an Egyptian film director and producer, Abu Bakr Shawki and Mohamed Hefzi, respectively, but with a Saudi story and cast. Starring Omar Al- Atawi, Azzam Nemr, Toleen Barbood, and Abdel-Mohsen Al-Nemr, Hajjan is both an adventure story and a moving account of the deep bond that can develop between human and animal. Matar is the youngest child in a Saudi family of camel jockeys. When his brother falls during a race and is killed, Matar is supposed to move in with his family in the city while his own camel, Hofara, is sold for meat. Instead he becomes a jockey himself, working for a ruthless racing baron until he and Hofara are forced to go on the run together, making a life-threatening journey through the desert in search of freedom and a better life. The film was shot largely in Tabuk on the Red Sea Coast.
A Nose and Three Eyes by Amir Ramses is another Egyptian feature fiction film screening in RSIFF. Starring Dhafer L’Abidine, Saba Mubarak, Salma Abu Deif, and Amina Khalil, the film is an adaptation of the late Egyptian writer Ihssan Abdel-Quddous’ novel of the same name, which examines the life of a man torn between three women. Hashem, a prominent plastic surgeon in his late forties, consults Aliaa the psychiatrist to help explain his attraction to a much younger woman, Ruba, who manages his social media account. Wondering if Ruba may resemble Hashem’s mother, Aliaa instructs him to start writing a journal about his past relationships. Hashem is doubtful but, when he runs into another former flame on his way out of Aalia’s office, the pieces start to fall into place.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 December, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly