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“Unimaginable five years ago”: a first major film festival inaugurated in Saudi Arabia

While cinemas in the ultra-conservative kingdom were banned until April 2018, Saudi Arabia launches its first major film festival in Jeddah, on the west coast. The goal? Make cinema a new lucrative industry for the region.

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Actors and directors will participate over the next 10 days at the International Red Sea Film Festival in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. 138 feature and short films from 67 countries y will be presented. Among them, The Alleys, directed by Jordanian Bassel Ghandour, as well as films by non-Arab directors, including 83 by Briton Joe Wright, based on the story of India’s victory at the Cricket World Cup in 1983. The festival is also set to honor Haifaa al-Mansour, the first Saudi female director whose film Wadjda (2012) has won him numerous international awards.

“The idea of ​​organizing a film festival in Saudi Arabia was unimaginable just five years ago,” underlines the Egyptian art critic Mohamed Abdel Rahmane. “Before the reopening of cinemas in 2018, the industry was working underground”, underlines Saudi director Ahmed al-Mulla, who has run an annual film festival in Dammam (east) since 2008. “There was no possibility of filming or getting funding.”

The film industry in the kingdom is booming today, with many shootings in the country and a surge in film consumption. The kingdom’s annual box office could reach $ 950 million (€ 839 million) by 2030, according to a report by consulting firm PwC.

Observers believe that the sector still lacks expertise and investment. And above all, the cinema needs “a high level of freedom of expression (…), from the staging of women to the freedom to broach different subjects”, valued Ahmed al-Mulla. “Cinema is the ‘soft power’ that can pave the way for social and economic change.” “It’s a turning point but we always aspire for more”Saudi actress Elham Ali told AFP on the red carpet, among other Saudi, Arab and foreign personalities.

Reforms have been initiated in the country in recent years, such as lifting the ban on women driving and allowing concerts and other mixed events, but a strict crackdown on dissent remains in place. The arrests of opponents, the rejection of the LGBTQ + community and the large number of executions in the country are regularly pointed out by human rights defenders.

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