Saudi Arabia will launch on Monday its inaugural film festival. The ten-day Red Sea International Film Festival will be hosted by Jeddah's al-Balad, the city's historic center and one of the Kingdom's most important heritage sites that is recognized by UNESCO.
Chairman of the Festival Committee Mohammed Al-Turki said the area holds a global human legacy. It is fitting that the area has been chosen for the festival. Filmmakers from over 67 countries will screen their films. Over 138 feature length and short films, in 34 languages, will be screened at the festival.
The festival will be a celebration of culture that blends the past with the present through cinema that binds people from across the globe, he told Asharq Al-Awsat in an exclusive interview.
Al-Turki has produced numerous major Hollywood films starring American and European cinema's biggest names.
"The festival was a challenge and Saudi Arabia accepted it. The Kingdom has strived for its inaugural edition to jump from modest beginnings to the global level in a single leap," he stressed.
Did you face a challenge in choosing the films? Several significant major films will be screened at the festival, how have you succeeded in doing so? What has attracted filmmakers to the festival?
The challenge is to select the best films from among numerous great works. It is a beautiful challenge and we have several works that deserve to be watched. We are delighted to offer them to the festival audience.
The festival program is diverse and rich with ideas and cinema languages, including virtual reality works. The most beautiful feature, however, is the lineup of Saudi and Arab works that showcase the film activity in the region. There is no doubt that the festival will be an opportunity to discover new talents and it will hold many surprises.
What will the Red Sea International Film Festival add to other film festivals? What will it add to Saudi cinema and to the Saudi viewer?
The Red Sea International Film Festival will open the door for a new cinema market, which is perhaps the fastest growing. After the return of cinema to Saudi Arabia, the festival will play an important role in offering our stories and innovation to the world, as well as connecting the Saudi and Arab innovators to global filmmakers.
We chose to hold the festival in December so that it could be a meeting point for cinema innovations of the entire year. For example, the festival offers the audience the opportunity to watch the best movies that have been screened by previous festivals as "International Selections". This is an opportunity for the Saudi and Arab viewers to watch these works.
In short, the festival is a gateway to Saudi and Arab cinema. It is a culmination of the year's cinema production and an opportunity for the Saudi audience to watch new beautiful global cinema.
How will the festival organizers handle challenges that may arise, including holding the event in the historic center of Jeddah?
We are proud that the event is being held in such a historic city as Jeddah and in the al-Balad region that has been recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. This in itself is significant. Cinema is a human experience. It is a language that brings together peoples and cultures, exactly as they did in this global city.
From a logistic angle, we were keen on being guests in this historic region and for Jeddah al-Balad to play the starring role in the festival. Of course, the festival demanded a lot of planning and preparation and the team did everything it could to deliver.
Every new project has its share of obstacles to overcome. What were the biggest hurdles you had to overcome?
This is a new festival. Our industry, even though it is flourishing, is still new. We are completely aware of that. When we speak of prestigious festivals, like Cannes, Venice and Berlin, they have become prestigious because they built their reputation throughout long decades.
The challenge we had accepted was racing against time to offer a festival on an international scale. Yes, this is our inaugural edition, but we had taken the decision from the start that this does not mean it will be a modest event.
Who are the biggest global stars who have confirmed their attendance?
We wanted to shed light on the importance of women in cinema. The opening of the festival will be attended by French icon Catherine Deneuve, who will also be honored at the event. Arab cinema star Laila Elwi and Saudi director Haifaa al-Mansour will also be honored at the festival. Hind Sabry and Yusra will attend the festival, as will other Saudi and Arab stars. Of course, we have more surprises and figures in store throughout the festival, so stay tuned.
Can we describe the cinema industry in Saudi Arabia as new or just picking up from where others left off?
The Saudi cinema industry is new, but cinema is a global art and language that brings together people from across the globe. Saudi cinema does not mean inventing a new cinema, but it means narrating new stories from new perspectives and methods. Cinema has not abandoned us and we did not abandon it. Today, however, we are witnessing a unique cultural and artistic revolution that will rebuild new and creative cinematic scenes.
What measures are in place so that the festival will be held safely and successfully amid the coronavirus pandemic and emergence of new variants, especially with the detection of the omicron variant in the United States and Europe?
There is no doubt that the global pandemic is an additional challenge in organizing such an international festival. Saudi Arabia has, however, managed to take a preemptive approach in ensuring the safety of its citizens, residents and visitors. Indeed, several preventive measures, including the inoculation of over 83 percent of the population with two doses of the vaccine, have been taken. As it stands, less than 40 new coronavirus cases are being reported daily.
Throughout the buildup to the festival, we have worked closely with the concerned parties and learned from other festivals, such as Cannes and Venice. We have therefore, put in place the best safety measures.
Mohammed Al-Turki has not only reached Hollywood, but has become part of that world, both on the professional and personal levels. How did that happen? What advice do you give people wishing to break into that world and continue in it?
I met several talents and stars when I was pursuing my college education in Britain. I forged a network of relations, especially with Hollywood. I met the Hilton family and through them, more cinema industry personalities and celebrities. I sought to build on these ties and employ them after entering the world of production.
We build a very special relationship with the film crew when we begin producing a work. We become a family whose main concern is offering a work that pleases the audience. Among others, I met film star Richard Gere through my movies. We embarked on the promotion of the film in Rome, New York, London, Abu Dhabi and the rest of the world.
I later worked with Zac Efron, Dennis Quad and Heather Graham when I produced the film "At Any Price". The movie was first screened at the Venice Film Festival. We then moved on to promote it in London, New York and other cities.
In addition to production, I have contributed to several charity events and activities that are backed by cinema, including working along with Sean Penn at the amfAR gala.
My general advice to people wanting to enter the field is be patient and then persevere and work hard to achieve your goals. Success does not come easily and dreams are achieved with determination.
Saudi directors have lamented that Saudi films are quick to be removed from cinemas and that people are not eager to watch them, except on rare occasions, even though the Kingdom boasts a large movie-going audience. What do you believe is the reason for this?
Just a few years ago, Saudi cinema was just a dream. Even when feature length Saudi films were produced, their screening was limited to festivals and cinema clubs. Today, we are witnessing more productions and more films that are geared towards the general public. We are also witnessing festival films and awards, which makes us optimistic.
We believe that even though it is still new, Saudi cinema can compete and will take its place on the local and international scenes. It is too early and unfair to measure the number of viewers and performance of Saudi cinema at the box office. After all, cinema had only returned to Saudi Arabia in 2019, then a year later we were confronted with the pandemic.
Our first international film festival is about to be held. Let is give ourselves some time. The future holds several surprises and we are very optimistic that Saudi cinema is transitioning from just cinematic activity to a complete cinema industry.