Rita di Santo reviews the Red Sea Film Festival
In a country where cinema had been banned for 35 years, the staging of a new film festival is an occasion to be celebrated. The first edition of the Red Sea Film Festival took place on December 6 -15 in the UNESCO world heritage site of Jeddah Old Town.
The festival line-up offered a rich mix of arthouse films, exploring themes of politics, everyday life, relations between men and women, homosexuality, violence, films that sparked conversations and debate. There were 16 features from the Arab world and Africa in the inaugural competition.
Georgian director Levan Koguashvili scooped the best film for Brighton 4th, a story of parental devotion and sacrifice, unfolding in the former Soviet émigré community of Brighton Beach, N.Y. This movie is a great revelation, imaginative and beautifully detailed, clever without being smug, affectionate without being sentimental.
Iraqi-Italian director Khader Rashid won best director for Europa about a young Iraqi man travelling across Europe who is targeted by vigilantes in Bulgaria. For the same movie Best Actor prize went to its young protagonist British-Libyan Adam Ali. This movie is a true original and as such of considerable value both as film and as a sad yet hopeful summation of the inhumanity of the migrant’s fight for survival in Europe.
The Best Actress award went to young Indonesian Arawinda Kirana for her role in Yuni, a compassionate and sympathetic coming of age story. Among other awards special mention prize went to Darin J. Sallam’s Farha, a strong debut portraying a Palestinian woman hiding from Israeli forces.
The festival also had twenty-seven titles from Saudi directors, among them a notably strong presence of female directors. Becoming is an omnibus of films by five female directors: Sara Mesfer, Jawaher Alamri, Noor Alameer, Hind Alfahhad and Fatima Al-Banawi. It tells five women’s stories: story of an infertility healer; an 11-year-old girl raised in a conservative household; a disappearing bride; a forty-year-old hairdresser contemplating an abortion, and a divorced mother. All five try very hard to get near to what things are like here and now, in Saudi, what anxieties people face and what they do about them.
Also deserving of mention is Anas Ba-Tahaf’s Fay’s Palette, telling the story of Fay, a young lesbian confined to her apartment by her brother because of her sexuality. It is a courageous piece of work, approaching a taboo subject without veils, grabbing the audience attention in a tough and beautiful manner.
The festival celebrated new talents from the region and across the Arab world. It was an exuberant affirmation of cinema itself. While the rest of the world watches movies on streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon and Apple, here people want to watch movies on the big screen together, excited to have the freedom to do it.
It has to be noted, however, that the shadow of accusation remains that the government is using culture to whitewash its poor human rights record. It is no secret the Saudis are investing in their future, as they look to diversify the economy and attract foreign investments by opening the doors to tourism industry that could bring millions of dollars to its beautiful emerald coast.
Yet the cultural change has started, like a domino effect, especially for women. Women are now allowed to drive; they can go out unaccompanied by men; they can work; they do not to have to wear the abaya. Mixed-gender concerts are permitted, and other steps are being taken to liberalize the country. But it is only a start. More things wait to be changed, of course. It remains a deeply conservative society and there will be a lot of struggles. But it's a journey worth taking because changes will come: revolutionary changes, hopefully.