Curiosity, Construction & Uber – Deadline

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A film festival is much more than films and the center of the festival. It’s about the location, the journey, the experience. Here on Deadline, we’ll bring you updates on what it’s like to be on the pitch at the inaugural Red Sea International Film Festival, Saudi Arabia’s first-ever film festival.

I am more than halfway through my time in Saudi Arabia for the Red Sea International Film Festival and what is becoming more and more evident with each passing day is that what this never-before-seen event lacks to experience. and organization, it compensates for it in ambition.

The first few days in Jeddah were chaotic to say the least as festival-goers struggled to navigate their way through this inaugural event. The festival has a large number of employees working at various checkpoints. There are designated desks at festival hotels with staff ready to help. The main event center, which is in Jeddah’s 1,400-year-old historic district, Al-Balad, is also well-staffed. Most are young and eager to help, although they don’t always seem to know the answers to your questions or the location of the main festival venues.

Encouragingly, I think I’ve never been to a festival where I’ve seen so many women working. The push for women at work happens in real time at this festival. We hope this will continue to be the case once international travelers return home and expand to other areas here.

Transportation has been a constant problem for many customers. Most delegates stay at several hotels in town, around a 20-minute drive from the festival’s main headquarters. The RSIFF has designated event cars and buses for guests, but they appear to be either missing or reserved for “someone else.” People close to the festival have told me that much of the disruption is due to the fact that staff were called in at the last minute to work at the F1 motor racing event last week, associated with 50% of more participants than expected. I heard that there were over 3,000 registered participants, while the expectation was about 1,500.

Tim P. Whitby / Getty Images

That said, I did resort to Ubers everywhere which was much more convenient and allowed me to meet real locals (although a few of the rides would put even the most experienced travelers on the nerves, with a few drivers insisting on showing me YouTube clips on their phones as they navigate the freeways).

This morning my driver, from Mecca who spoke perfect English, took me to the historic district and told me how happy he was that the festival is taking place in the city, as I hope he will open Saudi Arabia to the world. When I asked him if he felt a real change was taking place in his country, he replied “absolutely”. The past few years, in his opinion, have been a welcome step forward for the people and he, like the rest of his male counterparts, was happy to see women driving and women at work.

He was a movie buff and we both spent most of the 15 minute trip discussing our love of Christopher Nolan movies. We compared our favorite films from the director (his Interstellar, mine Creation) and then I realized that due to the 35-year-old religion-related cinema ban (which was only lifted in 2018), he would not have been able to see either one or the other at the cinema. It was a sobering thought and a privilege that I certainly took for granted as a Westerner.

The Saudis are some of the warmest, hospitable and curious people I have ever met. Whether locally or at the festival, it doesn’t feel like someone is trying to impress me because I’m a western journalist. Having attended several festivals in the area before – Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha – something here in Jeddah feels more organic and it took me a few days to realize and digest it.

Some of my preconceptions of coming to this festival have dissolved. The juxtaposition between the people here and the Conservative government is obvious. I still find it hard to forget that LGBTQ + rights are non-existent here, however. Ongoing human rights violations associated with Saudi Arabia hit the home again this week as news circulated from Paris that France had arrested one of the suspected suspects in Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination .

I attended the premiere of last night To become at the impressive, newly built Red Sea Gala Theater. The film is a compilation of five short films directed by five Saudi female directors, all with strong female-centric narratives set in the country. The theater was filled with a mix of locals and delegates, and you could feel the anticipation in the air. Everyone was applauding at the end of each short film, no one left the cinema – there was a real sense of pride among the crowd. Let us not forget that this would not have been possible just four years ago.

As the days go by, people seem to take more and more interest in things. Staff and guests seem to understand how things work, where they are, and what expectations need to be met. The Red Souk, the industrial component of the festival, has been busy since it opened yesterday. I have heard a few conversations between American producers and young Saudi producers discussing how they can work together and what the logistics would entail in bringing a production overseas here.

Tim P. Whitby / Getty Images

No festival would be complete without some laughable experiences, and here I have had a lot. I will certainly never forget being accidentally locked in a room at the festival’s Media Center during an interview, which forced me to break down the door. I will also remember to follow the signs to the press area for another interview, only to be directed to a construction site.

When I get back to my hotel in an Uber, the guards are constantly checking the trunks of the cars. When I asked my last driver why he said they were checking for alcohol. I thought it could have been something more sinister.

A London-based executive told me yesterday that what stands out about Saudi Arabia is that it talks less and more action compared to its regional counterparts. “They’re actually building this infrastructure and this industry,” he said.

So far, the consensus seems to be positive but curious. Despite the nonsense, most of the delegates seem to be aware that this is a festival for the first time in a country that has only reintroduced cinema to its people in the past four years. There is a feeling of goodwill. They try. There is ambition. They build the infrastructure. They want their stories to be heard and aren’t movies and storytelling a great way to break down barriers and initiate change?

But, as AGC Studios’ Stuart Ford said during a panel yesterday, “things are happening here quickly and fiercely”, and while he was referring to how quickly the country is strengthening in the cinematic space, one wonders if this could also apply to how quickly it could disappear, as it has been in other countries in the Middle East. Only time will tell.

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