‘We are reclaiming our narratives,’ says Saudi film director


RIYADH — As Jeddah gears up to host a ten-day inaugural Red Sea Film Festival beginning on March 12, 2020, it’s just four years ago that Berlin hosted the world premiere of “Barakah Meets Barakah,” the debut feature from Saudi director Mahmoud Sabbagh. It was the groundbreaking movie, the first from Saudi Arabia to screen at the Berlinale.

The Kingdom has experienced several major developments since then — the opening of the first movie theaters since a 35-year ban was lifted, its first ever pavilion in Cannes and the first Saudi film from its new fund (Haifaa Al-Mansour’s “Perfect Candidate”), to name but a few. And now Sabbagh is pushing at the cultural boundaries of his fast-changing country once more.

While, the Red Sea Film Festival — Sabbagh’s brainchild, it’s not the kingdom’s first film event, it’s certainly the first with a significant international outreach, and the first to be organized by the newly launched Ministry of Culture.

"For me, this festival really means that we are reclaiming our narratives," Sabbagh explains in an interview to Hollywood Reporter, a US film magazine. "We’re no longer shy from expressing ourselves. We are no longer shy from discussing our issues and also inviting others to come and see how we live."

Unlike grand film festivals, which are held in other Gulf countries, attracting A-list talent and star-studded Hollywood titles, the Red Sea Film Festival is expected to be less focused on its global red carpet appeal.

"We’re a young population — 70 percent is under 30. And a lot of aspiring filmmakers went to study abroad and are now back as professional filmmakers and want to tell stories and be part of the industry," says Sabbagh. "So for us, our main pillar is to really be part of that and to actually realize that in our festival, which is really about the grassroots reflecting an industry."

During the 10-day-long fest, a number of movies are set to be screened. The opening-night film is local production “The Book of Sun,” a drama set during the period in the early 2010s when young Saudis became some of the region’s biggest YouTube personalities.

The film is directed by Fares Qodus and produced by his brother Sohayb Qodus, who themselves were caught up in this wave, having come to fame as part of the media collective Telfaz11, responsible for viral hits such as the “No Woman, No Drive” video in 2013 and with more than 2 billion YouTube views collectively. "You can’t have a better film that resembles the current moment like this," says Sabbagh.

Oliver Stone has been confirmed as jury head, and special honorees in former French culture minister Jack Lang, Busan Film Festival founder Kim Dong-ho and Morelia Film Festival founder Daniela Michel are also lined up.

While he hopes to return to the director’s chair once the festival has drawn to a close on March 21, Sabbagh says he’s been treating the event as a "big film" that he’s producing. "Sometimes I feel that pain that I’m not making films, but that being said, I also feel content that I’m helping build something profound for the industry and community," he says. "It’s really humbling to serve the public and be part of the change and do something that resonates forever." — Agencies