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Critic’s Notebook: The 2023 Red Sea International Film Festival


A series of miles-long empty dirt lots lie wedged between the Ritz Carlton and the Red Sea Mall, the two primary venues of the Red Sea Film Festival in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Barren, with all signs of previous inhabitation fully erased, the site of the future Jeddah central district is a curious sight in the middle of a city of four million. When completed in 2027, it will be the cultural, industrial and touristic center of the city; for now, as endless empty space, it’s such a vertigo-inducing sight of rapid construction and development that it’s impossible to imagine anything ever actually emerging there. Are we expected to believe that, within a few years, a whole community will spring up from nothing?

Precisely this speed and sense of possibility defined my time in Jeddah at the Red Sea International Film Festival’s third edition in December. Started in 2021, a scant four years after Saudi Arabia’s lifting of a 35-year-long national ban on movie theaters which also severely limited film production, the Red Sea Film Festival is, in its own way, a construction site—a place to witness a national film industry being erected wholesale. Part of the Saudi Vision 2030 plan to reformulate Saudi Arabia’s global perception to that of a tourist-friendly country and move the economy away from oil dependency, the festival falls under the same development scheme that’s currently attempting to build NEOM, a 100-mile-long linear city in the desert. For the film industry, NEOM will include soundstages and host a film restoration initiative as well as a project market–essentially everything imaginable to help get the Saudi film industry a place on the world stage. Call it whitewashing or making progress (it’s both) in a country that, less than a decade ago, banned visitors and refused women the right to drive.

These massive cash investments have also led to a rapid, whiplash-inducing acceleration in local film culture. Take 28-year-old Saudi filmmaker Meshal Aljaseral, whose cult-ready Naga was one of the festival’s buzziest features. Starting as a grungy teenage YouTuber under the label Folaim, whose satirical stabs at conservative Saudi culture in videos like “Screw Infidels” and “Can I Go Out” drew both condemnation from the authorities and millions of hits, Aljaseral decamped to LA as an adult to begin his professional career. After growing his reputation further through short films like Is Sumiyati Going to Hell and Arabian Alien that played at festivals like Sundance and found their way onto streaming platforms, the country slowly began to push him as a major new voice even while his shorts continued to provoke controversy.

Aljaseral finally got his homecoming victory lap in the form of Naga—a Netflix-funded, TIFF-premiering midnight movie that met a rapturous audience at its Saudi premiere. Rife with an irrepressible sense of gonzo-pop entertainment, Naga opens with an irate man bursting into a maternity ward with an AK-47 and gunning down his wife, as well as her male obstetrician, because they broke the strict custom of the separation of the sexes when the doctor delivered her child. Jumping forward 20-something years, the film picks up again as the baby has grown into a young woman, Sarah (Adwa Bader), who we meet sneaking away from her overbearing father to spend a romantic day in the desert doing drugs with her secret boyfriend. That trip, as to be expected, turns into a long hellish night involving pyromaniac dirt bike gangs, a cloddish national poet hellbent on trying to teach her a lesson and a rampaging, blood-hungry camel.

Naga is a youth movie through and through, indulgently transgressive and a little too taken with its own ability to twist taboos and shatter norms. If a little monotonous in its over-reliance on hyper-kinetic camera tricks and relentless shock effects, that’s in keeping with its spirit of wanton rebelliousness. Watching it with a rapt audience that skewed young, it was hard not to think of it as a generational metaphor for a liberalizing Saudi youth culture, eager to get away and have fun while their conservative elders are willing to turn a blind eye. Even if most of the Saudi audience members whom I talked with about the movie expressed more ambivalence than appreciation, it still remained the most frequent topic of conversation, and the feeling of excitement over the fact that a Saudi film this subversive and electric could even exist was palpable.

 “It’s our Taxi Driver, it’s the first time we’ve seen Riyadh like that,” one local similarly expressed to me about sold-out screenings of Saudi crime flick Mandoob, which depicts one tense, eventful night for a delivery driver embroiled in the drug trade in the Saudi capital. In a much different key was the overwhelming reaction I witnessed to the festival’s best Saudi film winner, Norah, the story of a young, pop-culture obsessed woman, Norah (Maria Bahrawi), living in a highly conservative desert town in the 1990s and secretly desiring to escape. The rote understated melodrama and slightly-shaky handheld coverage of Norah might be nothing new, but surrounded by the voluminous tears of the largely female audience around me, I found myself moved by the display of communal emotion.

As I made my way past throngs of fans swarming Bahrawi after the film, I recalled another film I saw on the first day of the festival: Afreet Merati, a 1969 classical Egyptian film starring iconic Egyptian singer Shadia which was newly restored by the Red Sea Film Festival. Shadia plays Aida, a bored housewife so neglected by her pencil-pushing bank manager husband (Salah Zulfiqar) that she develops an unhealthy cinema obsession and starts coming home everyday thinking she’s one of the characters she’s seen on screen. At various points taking on the personas of Greta Garbo, a murderess and Irma La Douce, Aida causes such a headache for her husband that he decides the only solution is to make real life as thrilling as the movies by taking on a gangster persona to appease her. With its broad comedy and charismatic leads, the film is a crowdpleaser that also resonates with its depiction of cinema as a sight of freedom, fantasy and liberation.

As enthusiastic as I was about the screenings, I could not escape the why of it all as I traveled through the opulent halls of the former palace and current Ritz Carlton, where gala screenings were held. There is a Janus-like relationship between the well-curated, regionally-oriented programming and the glitzy, western-hemisphere focused red carpets. It felt like no coincidence that Will Smith and Johnny Depp were the first major names the festival was able to book—like Saudi Arabia itself, they too seem in need for the new horizons and image-makeovers the Saudi film industry can present. Talking to one semi-cancelled Hollywood filmmaker who hasn’t been able to land a job in years despite being near universally beloved, I was struck by the genuine and unironic enthusiasm he had for the country. Eager to possibly launch a project there, he even went so far as to claim, “It’s the new frontier. There’s more freedom here than in America or Europe. We should all start working here.”

The offerings at the festival, largely culled from other major festivals and curated to highlight the year’s best in Arab cinema, skewed towards both popular and conservative arthouse fare, omitting the experimental or truly radical but still managing to satisfy. Part of what has always kept me in love with cinema, and classical cinema especially, is its potential for ambiguity and ambivalence—the possibility to be both conservative and liberal, regressive and progressive. Personal festival favorite Hajjan rewardingly represented all of these contradictions for. A piece of by-the-books cinematic art that owes a lot to Disney family classics, Hajjan never surprised me with its routine plot mechanics, but still allowed for unexpected depths in its sincerity and warmth. Young camel jockey Matar (Omar Al Atawi) sets his sights on winning the championship, only to have his camel come under the ownership of Jasser (Abdulmohsen Alnemr), the conniving merchant who killed his brother during a race. From long asides probing into Jasser’s shaky domestic life and failed ambitions, to depicting a whole climatic camel race simply through nearly tensionless close-ups of the spectators watching the race, to an understated feminism that ran throughout the film’s largely masculine purview, Abu Bakr Shawky’s film continually surprised me with its unassuming ability to uncover rich character depths.

It was an experience not unlike my visit to the Red Sea Film Festival in general. I did not go expecting a radical vision, nor any sense of progressive enlightenment that would refute the common perception of the country at large. Nor did I find any—but what I did find was rewarding and surprising. The Red Sea Film Festival is a multimedia extravaganza, a slick, highly-polished event clearly angled to impress, and it’s not hard to peek behind the curtain to glimpse the dubious PR-aims behind it all. Does that make the well-curated lineup, ostensibly liberalist aims and exciting novelty any less worthwhile? Can the festival stand on its own despite the circumstances surrounding it? It’s a moral and geopolitical issue, and one I don’t think I’m capable of solving.

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