Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - From veiled cinema to film festival: Saudi rolls out red carpet

From veiled cinema to film festival: Saudi rolls out red carpet

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Egyptian actress Leila Eloui receives a career achievement award from chairman Mohamed al Turki during the opening of the first edition of the festival in Saudi city of Jeddah, on December 6. RED SEA FILM FESTIVAL/AFP

From veiled cinema to film festival: Saudi rolls out red carpet

Less than four years after lifting a ban on cinemas, Saudi Arabia rolled out the red carpet on December 6 in the Red Sea city of Jeddah for celebrities descending on the kingdom’s first major film festival.

Saudi, Arab and foreign actors and actresses walked the red carpet in evening wear – a far cry from the traditional black abaya that until recently was the officially mandated dress code for women.

“It’s a historical day in the kingdom,” the festival’s director Mohammed Al Turki said.

Movie houses were barred for decades until April 2018, but over the next 10 days, actors and directors will showcase their features 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 honour Haifaa al-Mansour, the first female Saudi director, who shot Wadjda in 2012, winning her a number of international awards.

“This is a turning point, but we still aspire for more,” Saudi actress Elham Ali said as she walked the carpet in a red dress.

The rise of Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in 2017 has ushered in a number of reforms.

“The thought of organising a film festival in Saudi Arabia was unimaginable just five years ago,” said Egyptian art critic Mohamed Abdel Rahman.

A social shift in the conservative Gulf state has included the lifting of a ban on women driving and allowing mixed-gender concerts and other events, even as a strict crackdown on dissent remains in place.

‘Soft power’

The festival also has an eye on a burgeoning market for shooting and consuming films in Saudi Arabia.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
French-Algerian director Yamina Benguigui poses on the red carpet for the screening of her latest film Sisters (Soeurs in French) at the Red Sea Film Festival on Monday. RED SEA FILM FESTIVAL/AFP

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.

Big Saudi projects

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.

But it’s not just about big budgets, said Al-Mulla.

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 [in the kingdom].”

Saudi Arabia has for decades had a strict interpretation of Islam and despite the modernisation drive, social restrictions remain in place.

“Cinema is not only an art but needs to be transformed into a culture in Saudi Arabia,” Al-Mulla said.


  • 12th Cambodia int’l film festival to see return of Hollywood star

    Phnom Penh is set to come alive with the magic of cinema as the highly anticipated 12th Cambodia International Film Festival (CIFF) takes centre stage. Boasting an impressive line-up of 188 films from 23 countries, including captivating shorts, feature films, documentaries and animation, the festival promises an

  • Bareknuckle champion wants Kun Khmer fighter

    Dave Leduc, who is the current openweight Lethwei boxing champion in Myanmar, has announced that he will travel to Cambodia this year to challenge SEA Games gold medallist Prum Samnang any time that is convenient, after their planned match later this month in Slovakia was

  • Struggling Battambang artist dreams of staging full-scale gallery exhibition

    Leav Kimchhoth, a 55-year-old artist from Battambang province, is a familiar face to locals and tourists alike on the streets of the riverside in Phnom Penh. The one-armed painter and illustrator often hawks his work near the night market on weekends and public holidays. He

  • Fresh Covid warnings as Thai hospital fills

    A senior health official reminds the public to remain vigilant, as neighbouring countries experience an increase in Covid-19 cases, with the latest surge appearing to be a result of the Omicron XBB.1.5 sub-variant. Or Vandine, secretary of state and spokeswoman for the Ministry of Health,

  • New Law on Taxation comes into effect

    Cambodia has enacted the eagerly-awaited new Law on Taxation, which aims to improve the national tax regime’s compliance with present and future international standards and economic conditions; encourage accountability, effectiveness and transparency in the collection process; and promote investment in the Kingdom. King Norodom

  • Five-year-old Hanuman dances his way into hearts of Cambodia

    A young talent from a new-established settlement has emerged, captivating the online world with his mesmerising performances of the traditional Cambodian monkey dance. Roeun Kakada is a five-year-old prodigy who has taken the social media sphere by storm with his exceptional dance skills and dedication