The glitterati was out in full force in Jeddah on Monday night as the inaugural Red Sea International Film Festival kicked off with the Middle Eastern premiere of Joe Wright’s musical romance Cyrano.
Stars such as Catherine Deneuve, Saudi helmer Haifaa Al-Mansour, Anthony Mackie, Clive Owen, Hilary Swank, Vincent Cassel and Cannes Film Festival director Thierry Frémaux all graced the red carpet at the specially constructed Red Sea Gala Theatre, in the city’s UNESCO World Heritage Site old town (Al Balad). Additional Arab stars and filmmaking talent included Hany Abu-Assad, Amira Diab, Mohamed Henedy and Egyptian actress Laila Eloui.
Before the film commenced, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Culture Prince Badr bin Farhan Al-Saud told delegates that the country’s first ever film festival was a watershed moment, as the country begins “embracing the waves of change” in its push to empower arts in the region.
He described the breadth of female talent in the lineup as a major “source of pride.” The festival kickstarted its celebration of women by honoring three female talents for their contribution to cinema, starting with Egypt’s Laila Eloui, an actress who is known for choosing daring roles and has starred in more than 70 movies. Eloui spoke to delegates about the strong development of Saudi culture and cinemagoers which are, she said, “in line with the development of Egyptian culture.”
The festival also honored Catherine Deneuve, who gave a short but sweet speech to delegates, as well as Saudi Arabia’s most well-known talent, director Haifaa Al-Mansour.
Al-Mansour took to the stage to recognize that the start of the film festival in a country which, up until a few years ago had banned cinema, was a “very important moment for us.”
“Cinema gave me my voice as a woman,” she said, adding, “This is a very important message for women in Saudi Arabia. Never be afraid. We are coming to the stage and we are strong.”
Mohammed Al-Turki, chairman of the Red Sea International Film Festival committee said: “It is a true honor to host such a wealth of both international and Arabic talent at our opening ceremony in a celebration of filmmaking unlike any other that the Kingdom has seen before. Over the next ten days, we will honor the very best of filmmaking from our region and beyond and we could not have wished for a better way to begin than tonight. The festival is a watershed moment for our burgeoning Saudi film industry and the opening ceremony has set a high bar of what is to come in our festival’s future.”
Excitement levels were certainly high. I sat next to a Saudi influencer who worked with one of the festival’s sponsors. Now based in London, she told me how much her country had changed in the last few years for the better. She was dressed in a strapless ballgown and said that it was never a better time to be a woman in Saudi Arabia. She was telling me this around the same time as my colleague Nancy Tartaglione broke the story that Saudi Arabia will be just one of the countries in the Middle East to ban Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story adaptation due to the inclusion of a transgender character in the film.
In what was arguably the biggest surprize of the night, Wyclef Jean performed an exclusive concert for delegates. The singer and former Fugees member took to the stage at the gala reception at the outdoor South Park Al Balad venue after the film finished. He performed titles such as Maria Maria, No Woman, No Cry, Killing Me Softly With His Song and Ready Or Not.