Red Sea International Film Festival 2023 [RedSeaIFF23]
by Alex Babboni
On 30th November 2023, I had the pleasure of flying to Saudi Arabia, to visit Jeddah, following an invitation from the Red Sea International Film Festival [RedSeaIFF]. As I disembarked from the plane, a gentle breeze welcomed me straight away, symbolising the warmth and cordiality that I ultimately experienced, beyond the festival itself.
Jeddah, a vibrant port city, serves as a metaphor for the blending of ideas about how Saudi culture is preparing to engage with the world. The RedSeaIFF, now in its third edition, illuminates the city with openness, diversity, and creativity. This ten-day event, centred around the theme “Your Story, Your Festival”, welcomes filmmakers, storytellers, film enthusiasts, distributors and audiences from around the globe. It filled me with joy and curiosity to witness and learn more about the rebirth of Saudi Arabia film industry.
The Festival primarily takes place at the Ritz-Carlton, which acts as a hub for cinemas, press conference rooms, debate spaces, and pavilions for companies and country representations within the Red Sea Souk. This design fosters connections among distributors, sales agents, producers, and directors from the Arab, African, Asian and international film scenes.
The RedSeaIFF commenced with the World Premiere of the Saudi fantasy romance film “HWJN” , directed by Yasir Al-Yasiri, at the grand Opening Night Gala. The event counted with the presence of esteemed actors and celebrities including Joel Kinnaman, Freida Pinto, Amina Khalil, and Paz Vega, who all served as part of this year’s Features jury. The star-studded occasion was made even more exciting by the presence of renowned figures like Sharon Stone, Will Smith, Johnny Depp, Rym Saidi, Amy Jackson, Aseel, Nour Ghandour, Fatima AlBanawi, Frida Aasen Chiabra, Hande Erçel, Khairiah Abulaban, Lebleba, Meryem Uzerli, Nadine Nassib Njeim, Shereen Reda, Yasmine Sabri and Michelle Williams, among others. Filmmaker Baz Luhrmann acted as a president jury member, adding to the festival’s prestige. They undoubtedly increased the glamour and anticipation surrounding the festival’s opening night.
During my time there, I witnessed first-hand the vital role the Festival plays in empowering, supporting, and promoting the regional film industry, with a special focus on the Middle East and North Africa regions [MENA], also Asia. The RedSeaIFF gives voice to unique stories and nurtures the growing cinematic culture in the area. Through the Red Sea Souk, the Red Sea Fund, and the Red Sea Labs, individuals interested in or working in the film industry have opportunities to expand their knowledge, skills, exposure to films and hidden gems in the market.
While speaking to filmmakers Bakr Alduhaim and Khaled Zeidan, the true significance of the RedSeaIFF became apparent. Both emphasised how the festival is on a vital mission to support, promote, and celebrate a new generation of storytellers from Saudi Arabia, the Arab world and Africa. Through mentorship, development programs and industry opportunities, the Red Sea Fund provided substantial financial backing of 14 million US dollars to over 100 directors in this year’s edition alone. This allowed these talented individuals to bring their cinematic visions to life.
The RedSeaIFF goes beyond just financial support; it offers numerous enriching opportunities for filmmakers. Grants, residency programs, workshops, masterclasses, panel discussions, and networking sessions are all part of the festival’s commitment to nurturing and empowering emerging talent. The impact of these initiatives is far-reaching, with several projects funded by the Red Sea Fund receiving recognition at prestigious film festivals, such as Cannes and the Berlin International Film Festival.
In Cannes, films like “Four Daughters”, directed by Kaouther Ben Hania, won the coveted “L’Oeil d’or” [Golden Eye] Award, while “Goodbye Julia”, directed by Mohamed Kordofani, received the “Freedom Prize” in the ‘Un Certain Regard’ section. “Inshallah a Boy”, directed by Amjad Rasheed, won the “Rail d’Or du long métrage” award at the Semaine de la Critique, among other successful films like “The Mother of all Lies” by Asmae El Moudir, “Banel & Adama” by Ramata-Toulaye Sy, “Omen” by Baloji, and “Hounds” by Kamal Lazraq. Similarly, two films funded by the Red Sea were also awarded at the 73rd Berlin International Film Festival: “The Burdened” by Amr Gamal and “The Cemetery of Cinema” by Thierno Souleymane Diallo. Furthermore, the Red Sea Fund has supported films showcased at other renowned festivals like the Malmö Arab Film Festival, Sydney Film Festival, Saudi Film Festival (Ithra), and the Durban International Film Festival.
These achievements not only demonstrate the immense success of the RedSeaIFF in supporting emerging filmmakers, but also highlight the festival’s commitment to showcasing diverse stories and perspectives on a global stage. The recognition received by Red Sea-funded films at prominent festivals, reinforces their quality and artistic merit, further propelling these storytellers into the international spotlight, enriching opportunities and global recognition have paved the way, for these filmmakers to make their mark in the industry, contributing to the growth and development of the regional film scene.
Culture plays a vital role in the sweeping national reform led by King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud. Saudi Arabia recognises the significance of culture in shaping its identity and emphasizes the importance of enhancing the quality and quantity of cultural offerings. In parallel of the governmental efforts, organisations such as Generation 2030 whose mission is to foster dialogue, reflection, and collaboration among the country tomorrow’s creatives, contributes to building cultural and social bridges between Saudi Arabia and the world. The organisation focuses on education, training and employment, in order to unlock the full potential of these future leaders. Furthermore, it promotes social participation and cultural exchange through various programs that encourage social responsibility, civic engagement, and respect for diversity and inclusion.
The creative industry in Saudi Arabia continues to flourish, with significant efforts from both the government and the private sector to establish the Kingdom as a hub for the Arts and Culture in the region. The RedSeaIFF is just one example of how Saudi Arabia is promoting the creative industry on an international level. Overall, the creative industry in Saudi Arabia is experiencing remarkable growth, thanks to significant investments from the government and private sector. The future looks promising for Saudi artists, designers, filmmakers and other creatives, as they continue to push boundaries and create innovative works, that reflect the rich diversity of the country’s culture and heritage.
During my visit to Jeddah, I also had the chance to experience the country’s hospitality and had the opportunity to visit numerous historical landmarks that showcased the city’s rich heritage. The UNESCO World Heritage Site Al-Balad, with its traditional architecture, old markets [souks] and beautifully preserved buildings, offered a glimpse into the past. Additionally, Jeddah’s Corniche, a scenic waterfront promenade along the Red Sea coastline, provided breathtaking views and stunning sunsets. Notably, the Floating Mosque, also known as the King Fahd Fountain Mosque, stood as an architectural marvel, appearing to float above the water during high tide. From the Ritz-Carlton, I could see that the tallest fountain in the world, the King Fahd Fountain, was a mesmerizing sight, especially when illuminated during the evening hours.
Jeddah embodies the essence of Saudi Arabia, leaving a lasting impression with its vibrant cultural celebrations and profound historical significance. As a bustling hub, the city embraces creativity, celebrates diverse voices, and fosters connections between cultures, all while exemplifying remarkable hospitality. Jeddah cherishes its past, remains firmly grounded in the present, and radiates hope for the future through its unique blend of warm hospitality and rich cultural heritage.
The pleasant and gentle breeze that accompanied me through my visit to the RedSeaIFF still lingers in my memory, reminding me of the wealth of creative talent and cultural richness that Saudi Arabia possesses. It serves as a testament to the potential for their artists to make a global impact. The future holds great promise for Saudi creatives, as they continue to push boundaries and generate innovative works that authentically showcase the diverse cultures and heritage of their treasured country.