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.
The Red Sea International Film Festival (December 6-15) kicks off tonight in the Saudi Arabian port city of Jeddah with Joe Wright’s Cyrano and while the festival has already sparked a lot of conversation in the international film industry, what does it really feel like to be at Saudi Arabia’s very first film festival?
There is no doubt that Saudi Arabia has long had a reputation as one of the most patriarchal and conservative nations in the world, and as a Western woman, it’s hard not to be slightly worried about what waiting for me on my very first visit to the country. Indeed, women were not allowed to drive until June 2018. It was just a few months before the birth of my three-year-old daughter, a staggering concept to digest.
The RSIFF will be the first major festival to take place after the discovery of the new variant of Covid Omicron. I arrived at Heathrow Terminal 2 on Sunday evening and it was quite sorry. I went through check-in and security very quickly and the airport staff told me it was exceptionally quiet. I had to follow all the now usual travel protocols to enter Saudi Arabia, including proof of vaccination (which had to be uploaded to a Saudi website called Muqeem) and a negative PCR test, in addition to needing a visa to enter the country.
My six hour flight from London to Jeddah went off without a hitch. I spent much of the trip wondering exactly what to expect next week. Just search on Google “Is Saudi Arabia a Safe Place to Visit?” To convey a rather ominous message, warning foreigners to think twice before traveling as a tourist. What would be the major cultural issues that we would be confronted with? Should I dress very conservatively? What would the festival events be like? Saudi Arabia bans alcohol consumption, so receptions so often associated with top festivals like Cannes and Venice would have a different flavor.
When I arrived in Jeddah in the early hours of Monday morning, the first thing that struck me was how kind and helpful the airport staff were. None of the usual panic that has been the case with international travel so often since the pandemic hit. I was also very surprised by the number of women working at the airport. I would dare say that each customs office was headed by a woman. I would learn later, from a Saudi native and a festival delegate at my hotel, that this is a huge change in culture and that five years ago still none of these official positions would only be occupied by a woman.
Security was complete. I had to give my fingerprints for both hands in addition to having my picture taken before being taken to where the RSIFF staff were waiting for me and my colleague. What also struck me was how friendly, young and polite these staff were. Their excitement for this impending festival was palpable when they got us into our private car.
Indeed, all of the festival staff I have encountered so far have been very friendly and eager to help (although they don’t seem to know the answers to many logistical questions). There are a lot of women working at this festival, another welcome surprise. Notably, many of the staff I have met are not only from Saudi Arabia but also from places like Lebanon and Egypt who have been brought in to work alongside the locals.
As you would expect with any first-time festival, there were some initial issues with starting up. For example, the Tawakkalna app (Saudi Arabia’s Covid-19 app you need to enter various venues across the country) that all delegates were asked to download prior to the festival was difficult to access. for a number of journalists.
Wi-Fi at the Park Hyatt, one of the festival’s main hotels, was interrupted for several hours on Monday (much to this journalist’s dismay). Even the Wi-Fi at the Red Sea Gala Theater, which was built especially for the festival in the historic 1,400 Al-Balad district, was very spotty. Roaming charges are very expensive here and reception seems to come in and out unless you have a local SIM card which seems to make communication quite tricky at times.
As I waited in the foyer to be picked up for the opening ceremony, I couldn’t help but notice that a number of local women heading to the event were wearing sleeveless dresses , a real surprise. Many people I have spoken to keep telling me the same statistic: Two-thirds of Saudi Arabia’s population is under the age of 30 and it is young people who will drive change in the country. . There is a real sense of will to change the world’s perception of Saudi Arabia as a deeply patriarchal society. Will the International Red Sea Festival be the first major film event to highlight this desire? Let’s wait and see.