Red Sea International Film Festival: A Saudi woman’s triumph

Nahed Nasr , Wednesday 5 Jan 2022

Al-Ahram Weekly attended the inaugural round of Saudi Arabia’s first ever film festival.

Amer with the crew ofYou Resemble Me
Amer with the crew ofYou Resemble Me

The inaugural edition of the Red Sea International Film Festival (RedSeaIFF, December 6-15), which ran in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia under the slogan “Waves of change”, was the most important Arab cinematic event of 2021.

The event is part of the enormous change taking place in Saudi Arabia – traditionally the most conservative Arab-Muslim society – for a few years now, which involved unprecedented freedoms for women and much cultural activity, with cinemas, previously prohibited, opening everywhere in the country and a great deal of support for the Arab and African as well as the Saudi film industries. In many ways the first RedSeaIFF was the crowning glory of those efforts.

Scheduled to launch last year but postponed due to the Covid pandemic, RedSeaIFF featured 138 films from 67 countries in 34 languages, 27 of them Saudi. 38 per cent of these films are directed by women, whose role it sought to emphasise in every way.

According to RedSeaIFF Managing Director Shivani Pandya, “Celebrating the contribution of women to cinema is central to the mission of the festival. We are honoured to be able to give a platform to local emerging female directors, writers and actors, who have been crucial in the development and progression of the Saudi film industry. Beyond this, we are thrilled to be able to honour the contribution of women to Arab and international cinema, through specific tributes and masterclasses, and are inspired by these women and the work they have done to lead the empowerment of women in our industry.”

At the opening ceremony, hosted by the Saudi actor Yaqoub Al-Farhan and the Saudi actress-filmmaker Fatima Al-Banawi, the festival honoured three outstanding women “for their extraordinary contribution to cinema and to drive the festival’s mission to celebrate incredible women in film”: multi award-winning filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour, Academy Award and BAFTA nominated French actress Catherine Deneuve and acclaimed Egyptian actress Laila Elwi. 

Al-Mansour is not just one of the most prominent names in Saudi film, she also pioneered championing female empowerment across the region. Her debut feature, the multi-award winning Wadjda (2012), was the first film ever to be shot in the kingdom. She has since gone on to direct internationally, making films like Mary Shelley (2017) and Nappily Ever After (2018), before returning with the Saudi film The Perfect Candidate (2019).

“I am incredibly honoured to come home to Saudi Arabia for the first round of the Red Sea International Film Festival,” Al- Mansour said. “Those of us who worked tirelessly with dreams of cinema finding a home here know what a truly monumental event this is for the kingdom, the region and the world. I believe strongly in the power of art to foster positive development and opportunity in our society and hope that this festival serves as a strong foundation for a burgeoning industry that will nurture and amplify our stories and dreams well into the future. When I started making films years ago, the idea of working as a director seemed outlandish."

"But I knew that the world was curious to hear from us, to hear our side of the story, and that films from our part of the world would strike a chord with audiences everywhere. Now, returning home as an honouree at our first film festival feels just as unbelievable. It is an incredible honour for me, and such a wonderful opportunity to see the best of up-and-coming talent from the region. The world is still eager to hear from us, and I am so excited to see the infrastructure of a film industry being built to help realise our cinematic visions. I am so excited to see what comes next.”

Deneuve, celebrated for performances in 8 Women (2002), Repulsion (1965), Belle de Jour (1967), Dancer in the Dark (2000) and Indochine (1992), for which she was nominated for the 1992 Academy Award for Best Actress, also won two out of 14 César Award nominations and the Venice Film Festival’s prestigious Volpi Cup for Best Actress, as well as many other international awards.

“I am especially grateful for this honour,” she said, “and the opportunity to be a part of this wider celebration of the contribution of women to cinema. I hope that this acknowledgement of the contribution of women in cinema continues to underscore the importance of having a strong female presence both in front of and behind the camera.”

Elwi, who has starred in over 70 films and received numerous awards across the world, is perhaps best known for Love Cinema (2004), Too Little Love... Too Much Violence (1995) and Girls in Love (2004). Both she and Youssra, another iconic Egyptian film star, gave masterclasses discussing their careers.

For his part Mohamed Al-Turki, chairman of the RedSeaIFF Committee, said, “It is a true honour to host such a wealth of both international and Arab talent at our festival, in a celebration of filmmaking unlike any other that the kingdom has seen before. The festival is a watershed moment for our burgeoning Saudi film industry.”

Out of the new wave of Saudi work, RedSeaIFF celebrated two feature films by multiple emerging female filmmakers. In Becoming, financed by the Saudi Red Sea Foundation, five shorts come together under an Untitled Omnibus Feature to realise nuanced reflections on woman-centred narratives. The five directors are Hind Alfahhad, Jowaher Alamri, Noor Alameer, Sara Mesfer and Fatima Al-Banawi.

In Quareer, another five Saudi women – Ragheed Al-Nahdi, Norah Almowald, Ruba Khafagy, Fatma Alhazmi and Noor Alameer – explore themes of abandonment, neglect, control, abuse and shame in a conservative society. The cast and crew of the five short films are made up of students and graduates of the Cinematic Arts programme run by Effat University in Jeddah, the first film school of its kind in the kingdom. The Bachelor of Science in Cinematic Arts, a four-year programme for students interested in higher studies in cinematography, film and media production, is the first and only university degree of its kind. Starting in 2022, 20 years after it was established, the programme – initially a female-only course – will be open to men as well.

Another five films by Saudi women in the New Saudi, New Cinema section include My Vibe, a documentary film by Faizah Ambah, who also contributes a short narrative film, Nour Shams to the same section. Both films deal with everyday life in the director’s hometown, Jeddah. In My Vibe, when cinema comes to the old neighbourhoods of Jeddah, the lives of three teenagers are forever changed by the experience. However, Nour Shams is about a female Uber driver who is also a single mother forced to choose between being separated from her son and giving up her passion for African desserts.

Lina Malaika and David Darg’s Maskoon, another short fiction film, is about an American archaeologist working alongside the Saudi Ministry of Culture on excavations in Al-Balad, Jeddah. Strange events – including the discovery of an ancient box and an unnerving encounter with a local antique dealer –  make her increasingly uneasy.

There is also The Palm Witch, a short animation by Hala Alhaid about two friends in the old city of Riyadh who set out in search of their lost pet. Whisper Down the Lane is an experimental short by Raghad Albarqi, which takes us on a linear journey that follows a series of interconnected phone calls between five individuals, eventually escalating into a bigger conflict. The film explores the concepts of communication, self-destruction, and their domino effect.

Optimism about RedSeaIFF and a Saudi discourse profoundly different from what has been coming out of the kingdom for decades is widespread. The prominent Egyptian director Khairi Bishara, who was invited on the occasion of the restoration of some of his most important films by the Red Sea Foundation, likened RedSeaIFF to a resounding revolution. “It does not seem to me that life begins here from scratch after the announcement of the major changes in the direction of the kingdom, but it seemed as if there were tens or even hundreds of young people ready for this moment, which means that whatever the motive behind what they call waves of change, the popular basis is there and will remain and will grow and impose itself.”

Among the award-winning films at RedSeaIFF is You Resemble Me, a feature film by Dina Amer, the Egyptian-American filmmaker, journalist and producer of Jehane Noujaim’s Emmy-winning documentary The Square (2013). You Resemble Me, which won the Audience Award, takes place during the bombing attacks in Paris in 2015, when a young woman called Hasna Aït Boulahcen is arrested and identified as Europe’s first female bomber. Amer interviewed her friends and family; she has since reimagined her story, beginning with her wrenching separation as a child from her sister when they were placed with different foster families. Three actresses play the troubled adult Boulahcen, reflecting her sense of fractured identity as she searches for something to do that will make her feel she belongs.

“For my film to be screened in the heartland of Islam is crucial,” Amer says, “in the place where Islam began and from which it moved to the rest of the world where the Message of the Prophet Mohamed was altered into very different interpretations to create a radical ideology that really has nothing to do with the true Islam that billions of people all over the world practise. For Saudi Arabia to accept my film is a very strong sign that Islam has nothing to do with those radical ideologies. It is a dream come true. As a Muslim woman I never thought I might live to see this.”

Antoine Khalifa, Director of Arab Programmes at RedSeaIFF, feels it is especially significant that Haifaa Al-Mansour should be honoured. “Through the themes and issues that concern Saudi society and Saudi women as she tackled them in her films, it seems to me she could see the change many years before it happened. This change that she has always been a part of by inspiring dozens of Saudi female filmmakers from different generations whose works we see today in the same festival. This is evidence that there are no limits to inspiration, determination and development.”

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

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