The second Red Sea International Film Festival (RSIFF, 1-10 December) kicked off with an elegant opening ceremony at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, which is located along the Jeddah Corniche overlooking the eastern shore of the Red Sea. The celebration was not too flashy, but it sparkled with first-class Arab and international stars, among them are three celebrities honoured by the Gold Yusr Award for their exceptional artistic contribution: legendary Indian actor and producer Shah Rukh Khan, Egyptian cinematic icon Yousra and acclaimed British director Guy Ritchie.
International and Arab stars presented at the opening ceremony included Sharon Stone, Maryam Ozerli, AR Rahman, Andy Garcia, Henry Golding, Nadine Labaki, Fatih Akin, Khairy Bishara, Hala Sidqi, Lebleba, Haifa Al-Mansour, Fatima Al-Banawi, Ibrahim Al-Khair Allah, Hisham Fakih, and many others. Also present were members of the RSIFF Jury, including Oscar-winning director Oliver Stone, Nelly Karim, Kawthar Ben Haniyeh, Levan Kogvashvili Ali Suleiman, as well as Short Film Competition Jury members Joanna Haji-Thoma, Shahd Amin and Uzi Agho.
According to Mohamed Al-Turki, the festival’s CEO, the second RSIFF is designed to reflect its vital role in transforming and reshaping a future generation of filmmakers “We now have a unique opportunity to convey new films to a wider audience, display the creations of new and interesting talents, and make a contribution to tangible culture at the level of the kingdom and the region in general,” he said.
The festival, which opened with the Indian romantic comedy What’s Love Got To Do With It? by Shekhar Kapoor, includes 131 feature and short films from 61 countries in a range of programs and sections, and those include 34 world premieres, 17 Arab premieres, 47 films from the Middle East and North Africa, and 25 Saudi films. The Saudi lineup includes seven feature films and 18 shorts, including the closing feature film Valley Road by award-winning Saudi writer and director Khaled Fahd, which is having its world premiere in the RSIFF.
Film Is Everything is the slogan of this year’s round. Alongside the main competition screenings, Red Carpet galas, outdoor screenings and special presentations, the festival is hosting a spectrum of screening sections that includes New Saudi/New Cinema, Red Sea Treasures, Red Sea Arab and International Spectacular, Red Sea Family and Children, Red Sea Virtual Reality, Red Sea Series, and Red Sea New Vision, the latter dedicated to filmmakers pushing the boundaries of creativity with a style of genre-defining filmmaking that will challenge audiences.
The festival is being held in partnership with VOX Cinemas and the MBC GROUP, and it has a series of masterclasses by established international and regional talents entitled “In Conversation With”, where the audience meet with influential figure such as the renowned German director, screenwriter and producer Fatih Akin, veteran Egyptian actor Hussein Fahmy, Oscar-nominated Tunisian filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania, Egyptian film star Nelly Karim, American film star Sharon, award winning Lebanese director and actress Nadine Labaki, American filmmaker, producer, screenwriter and actor Spike Lee, and renowned filmmaker Guy Ritchie.
This year, the Red Sea International Film Festival collaborated with the Arab Radio and Television Network (ART), the Egyptian Ministry of Culture’s investment holding company for cinema, and the Media Production City in Egypt to restore two legendary Egyptian classics for screening: the beloved Egyptian classic Watch Out for Zouzou (Khalli Balak Min Zouzou, 1972) directed by Hassan Al-Imam celebrating 50 years since its release, and Love in Karnak (Gharam fil Karnak, 1967) by Mahmoud Reda.
According to Antoine Khalife, Director of the RSIFF Arab Programs and Classics, the two restored films are masterpieces of Egyptian cinema, and each had an unprecedented impact on viewers and society. “Souad Hosny is in the heart of the entire Arab population and the great choreographer and dancer Mahmoud Reda has made Egyptian dance shine across the world,” he said.
For his CEO Mohammed Al Turki said that the initiative of film restorations demonstrates the festival’s commitment to preserving film heritage, as well as supporting the creation and development of new films: “These restored Arab classics showcase some of the best of Arab film heritage and are bound to bring joy to audiences already familiar with the stories, as well as giving the films a new lease of life by bringing them to new audiences.”
Another unique program in this year’s round is the RSIFF Virtual Reality (VR) Competition which includes a selection of the latest immersive experiences in competition. The VR program showcases 10 virtual reality productions, including four Saudi projects in collaboration with Ithra’s Creative Solutions Program, the first development program for immersive works in Saudi Arabia. The VR creators are competing for the Gold and Silver Yusr Awards, worth $10,000.
The Red Sea Souk, the festival’s industry market platform, offers a packed program of curated events to foster coproduction and international distribution, and to encourage new business opportunities. Representatives of 46 countries are attending the Souk which showcases the vibrant new Saudi scene, as well as Arab and African production. The Project Market of the festival, on the other hand, provides pitching and coproduction meetings for its selection of 23 films from Arab and African directors, in development or production, and a showcase of six Work-In-Progress screenings to an audience of accredited industry professionals. All Souk selected projects compete for cash prizes offered by the Red Sea Fund, to be awarded by two juries. The Project Market’s jury awards also a $35,000 fund for the Jury Special Mention Award both for Development and $100,000 for production; and all selected projects are eligible for additional awards sponsored by Red Sea Souk sponsors and partners totalling in $500,000.
According to Shivani Pandya Malhotra, Managing Director of the RSIFF, the Red Sea Souk puts the festival in a position to support filmmakers at all stages of their careers. “Our programs throughout the year follow the full cycle of filmmaking. We are delighted to be welcoming acclaimed international and Arab talent, pioneering industry leaders, the next generation of filmmakers and exciting game changers for a program of screenings, in-person panels, masterclasses, networking and talks at a time of immense change to ensure we are part of the wider global conversation,” she explained.
Taking place on 7-8 December as part of the Red Sea Souk activities, Talent Days is a series of sessions designed to nurture a new generation of filmmakers. It is an initiation into the film industry for aspiring filmmakers through inspirational talks and individual meetings led by acclaimed director Kaouther Ben Hania, joined by creatives from around the world. The Red Sea Souk also offers opportunities for networking and building collaborations for future projects. Three sessions hosted throughout the Souk cover development, production, and distribution and are designed to foster connections between key industry players, filmmakers, and festival attendees as well as to offer a comprehensive and nurturing journey from script to screen.
The Souk also showcases 43 exhibiting companies from 10 countries including sales companies, film commissions, national cinema pavilion, post-production studios, and main festival industry sponsors.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.