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Saudi film festival showcases growing movie industry

Fashion, People, Person Reuters/Balkis Press/
Jomana Al-Rashid, chairwoman of the Red Sea Foundation, actor Will Smith and Mohammed Al Turki, CEO of the Red Sea International Film Festival
  • Red Sea event replaces Dubai one
  • Neom is the sponsor
  • Hollywood stars attend

The third Red Sea Film Festival kicked off in Jeddah last week, highlighting the city’s rejuvenation as part of Saudi Arabia’s economic reform plans and rapid growth of its movie industry. 

Stars including Johnny Depp, Will Smith, Sharon Stone, Catherine Deneuve and a coterie of Saudi directors and actors graced the red carpet for gala performances, public forums and networking sessions in a country where cinemas were banned until six years ago. 

The festival has taken over as the leading Gulf cinematic event after the demise of the Dubai International Film Festival amid spiralling costs. It showcases major social reforms that have taken place in Saudi Arabia over the past decade. 

A previous version of the festival in Jeddah was closed down in 2009 after opposition from clerics whose powers have since then been scaled back. 

The festival jury is headed by Moulin Rouge director Baz Luhrmann and stars including US-Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman, Freida Pinto from India, Egyptian actress Amina Khalil and Paz Vega from Spain. 

The event’s main sponsor is the Public Investment Fund-owned city Neom. It was not clear how much stars were paid to attend. 

Saudi fans swelled a cinema complex on December 2 to hear Will Smith in conversation.

Smith also visited the historic Balad district of Jeddah, followed by Saudi entertainment channels. It was his second visit to the country since being spotted at a camel race in Alula and the Formula One Grand Prix in Jeddah earlier this year. 

With a population of around 5.3 million, Jeddah is undergoing expansion in residential districts, tourism and the arts.

Ongoing projects include Marafy and Alarous by Roshn, Sadayem by the National Housing Project, Jeddah Economic City and Jeddah Central. 

Red Sea Film FestivalSupplied
Bahraini musician Khaled El-Sheikh singing with his daughter at the Red Sea Film Festival
Saudi highlights

The festival includes eight full-length films about social themes by Saudi directors, as well as others with Saudi collaboration, and 19 short films. 

Saudi director Jamal Kutbi entertained Jeddans with a documentary about Bahraini singer Khaled El-Sheikh.

A moderniser of Gulf music through mixing jazz and other styles with classical Arabic verse, the 65 year-old also attended the showing. 

Once detained in Kuwait, he often courted controversy through his pan-Arab political positions. Another singer once told him “your tongue’s ruined you, just sing,” he joked, before giving an oud performance with his daughter Samawa. 

Saudi Arabia is building up its film industry as part of the government’s effort to diversify the economy away from oil and open the country up to foreign investment and tourism. 

A Film Commission set up in 2020 and MBC’s training academy mean there is less need for actors from Kuwait and Bahrain in Saudi comedies and dramas.

“There’s a lot of authentic Saudi talent. It’s booming,” said Abdulrahman Khawj, CEO of Kawkab Pictures.

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