Can Red Sea Film Festival Reconcile Its Bold Vision with Saudi Arabia’s Political Controversy?

By Goodfellow, Melanie | Screen International, August 30, 2019 | Go to article overview

Can Red Sea Film Festival Reconcile Its Bold Vision with Saudi Arabia’s Political Controversy?


Goodfellow, Melanie, Screen International


Saudi Arabia is receiving ongoing criticism for its human rights record.

A scene of a brunette woman driving down a desert highway at dawn in an open-topped sports car, hair fluttering in the wind, kicks off Saudi filmmaker Mahmoud Sabbagh’s promotional video for his country’s inaugural Red Sea International Film Festival. It is an image heavy with significance. Posted online on June 28, alongside an announcement of the festival’s March 2020 dates, the video’s release coincided nearly a year to the day with Saudi Arabia’s lifting of a historic ban on women driving.

It is a bold and modern vision, setting the tone for Saudi Arabia’s first large-scale international film event. It is also a vision at odds with the country’s wider global image as it remains mired in controversy around the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, condemnation of its ongoing war in neighbouring Yemen and its track record on human rights, including a recent rise in public beheadings.

Sabbagh, who is best-known internationally for his groundbreaking 2016 romantic comedy Barakah Meets Barakah, is also the festival director and CEO of the event, due to unfold in Saudi Arabia’s second biggest city of Jeddah. Its creation follows in the wake of the Middle East nation’s lifting of a 30-year ban on cinemas in 2017 and a drive to create a national film and TV industry. This, in turn, is part of the Saudi Vision 2030 strategy announced by controversial Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in late 2017 to diversify his country’s economy away from a dependence on oil.

With a population of 34.1 million, around 60% of which is under 30, Saudi Arabia has the largest, and one of the youngest, populations in the Gulf region. It is well positioned to create a thriving local industry, making content with wider regional appeal. Even prior to the Crown Prince’s modernising drive, the country was home to a bubbling underground YouTube comedy scene, which spawned stars such as stand-up comic Hisham Fageeh, who was also the lead actor in Sabbagh’s Barakah Meets Barakah.

An independent cinema scene was also quietly taking root, especially in Sabbagh’s hometown of Jeddah, which is regarded as Saudi Arabia’s most open and cosmopolitan city, thanks to its roots as a crossroads for both traders and pilgrims headed to Mecca. Another Jeddah native, Shahad Ameen, premieres her debut feature Scales in Venice Critics’ Week on Monday September 2.

Courting controversy

Sabbagh is launching the festival against a complex local and international political backdrop. Much of the initial international optimism around the Crown Prince’s drive to open up the conservative kingdom has dissipated over the past 11 months, following the assassination of Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last October and the growing condemnation of the Saudi-led coalition war against Houthi rebels in Yemen, which has resulted in more than 100,000 civilian deaths.

The Crown Prince’s image as a reformer and moderniser has also been left in tatters by reports of a rise in public executions. The London-based Arab Organisation of Human Rights reported in July that the country publicly beheaded 134 people in the first six months of 2019, including 37 political dissidents in a mass execution in Riyadh in April. …

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