From cinema ban to film festival: Saudi rolls out red carpet
Less than four years after lifting a ban on cinemas, Saudi Arabia is hosting its first major film festival that kicked off on Dec. 6 as it eyes a lucrative new industry.
Movie houses were barred for decades until April 2018, but over the next 10 days, actors and directors will tread the red carpet at Jeddah’s Red Sea International Film Festival.
The festival starts a day after Jeddah hosted its first Formula One Grand Prix, also an attempt to portray Saudi Arabia in a different light. It will showcase 138 long and short films from 67 countries in more than 30 languages.
Among them are Jordan’s critically acclaimed “The Alleys,” directed by Bassel Ghandour, and non-Arabic films including Joe Wright’s “Cyrano” and “’83,” the story of India’s 1983 cricket World Cup victory.
The festival is also expected to honor Haifaa al-Mansour, the first female Saudi director, who shot “Wadjda” in 2012, the winner of a number of international awards.
“The thought of organizing a film festival in Saudi Arabia was unimaginable just five years ago,” said Egyptian art critic Mohamed Abdel Rahman. The festival also has an eye on a burgeoning market for shooting and consuming films in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia’s annual box office could reach $950 million by 2030, according to a report by multinational accountancy firm PwC.
It estimates the kingdom’s forecast population of nearly 40 million could absorb up to 2,600 cinema screens.
“Before cinemas reopened in 2018, the industry was working underground,” said Saudi director Ahmed Al-Mulla who has run an annual Saudi Film Festival in the eastern city of Dammam since 2008.
“There were no capabilities to film or get financing. It all depended on the individual’s efforts.” Industry observers, however, say the Saudi film sector still lacks expertise, as well as investment.But some big projects are now becoming reality.
MBC Studios, the production arm of Saudi-owned Arab media giant MBC Group, went online in 2018 with huge budgets.
It is currently filming the action movie “Desert Warrior” in the Neom region, also on the Red Sea. Cinema needs “a high standard of freedom of expression... from featuring women to the freedom of addressing different topics,” he said.
“Cinema is the soft power that can pave the way for the success of the social and economic changes that are underway.”