Take two: Eyes of the global film industry are on Jeddah for Red Sea festival

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Updated 01 December 2022

Take two: Eyes of the global film industry are on Jeddah for Red Sea festival

  • The second Red Sea International Film Festival promises to be bigger and better than the first, with international stars flocking to the Kingdom’s cinematic spectacular

JEDDAH: The second Red Sea International Film Festival begins on Thursday in Jeddah and the red carpet has been rolled out at the glitzy Ritz Carlton hotel to welcome international movie stars and filmmakers from East and West.

Under the slogan “Film is Everything,” the event, which continues until Dec. 10, will showcase 131 feature films and shorts from 61 countries, in 41 languages, made by established and emerging talents, including seven feature films and 24 shorts from Saudi Arabia.

In an exclusive interview with Arab News, RSIFF CEO Mohammed Al-Turki said: “This year, we have a very proud moment as we are closing the film festival with a Saudi film. This is a clear indicator of where Saudi cinema is at.

“Our programmers, especially Antoine Khalife, are very picky when it comes to films. So, for the Red Sea International Film Festival to accept a Saudi film means that it is of a quality to showcase at an international festival.

“So we are very proud and happy to show a home-bred film, “Valley Road” — with a Saudi cast, Saudi director and Saudi writer — as our closing film. It just tells you that Saudi cinema is booming at a fast pace.”

Al-Turki said that the popularity of film has soared in the Kingdom in the five years since a decades-long ban on cinemas was lifted.

“There is a hunger for film and you see that when you look at the numbers of the box office tickets — we have exceeded all neighboring countries,” he said. “We have a bigger box office revenue than the UAE, than Egypt, in just the short time since we lifted the cinema ban in 2017.”

Far from simply playing catch-up with the global cinema industry after the long ban, Saudi Arabia is already excelling in its own right, according to Al-Turki.

“I think we are on the right path … you see a lot of people trying to excel and we’re trying to catch up from the 35 years that cinema was not present,” he said.

“So everybody is trying their best and I’m sure in the next few years we will have Saudi films on a global scale and, hopefully, we can open our film festival in coming years with a Saudi film.”

This year’s opening film “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” is a cross-cultural British romantic comedy directed by Shekhar Kapur and starring Lily James, Emma Thompson, Shazad Latif, Rob Brydon, Shabana Azmi, Sajal Aly, and Asim Chaudhry. It won the Best Comedy award at the Rome Film Festival last month.

The festival schedule includes 34 international premieres, 17 Arab premieres, and 47 films from the Middle East and North Africa. It will also welcome many of the talents, on both sides of the camera, involved in the making of the films.

The festival also features an official competition, the Yusr Awards, in which 26 shorts and 16 features from Asia, Africa and the Arab world will compete in a number of categories, including Best Feature Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor and Best Actress. The winners will be announced on Dec. 8.

The Saudi Film Commission has chosen the film “Raven Song” as the Kingdom’s entry for the Oscars in the Best International Feature Film category. It will have its world premiere at RSIFF on Dec. 3 and is one of the seven films competing for the Golden Yusr for Best Feature Film.

Last year, the Golden Yusr went to the drama “Brighton 4th” by Georgian director Levan Koguashvili, while the top short film award went to “Tala’Vision,” directed by Murad Abu Eisheh from Jordan.

This year, acclaimed US filmmaker Oliver Stone, the recipient of three Academy Awards and director of films such as “JFK,” “Platoon,” “Snowden” and “Born on the Fourth of July,” will head the awards jury.

The festival aims to help open the doors to the film industry for a generation of young Saudis by enriching their knowledge of the industry and providing access to expertise from around the world through a number of initiatives, including competitions that offer funding awards, and filmmaking masterclasses and workshops.

To support and help the fledgling local film industry flourish, RSIFF has its own educational program, Red Sea Labs, and has formed partnerships with TorinoFilmLab in Italy and US film institutions to teach filmmakers from Saudi Arabia and the wider region.

The RSIFF film fund also supports young Saudi and regional filmmakers during preproduction, production and postproduction, said Al-Turki, and “we have the platform, the film festival, to showcase their films. So it comes full circle.”

One of the most significant RSIFF initiatives is the Red Sea Souk, the festival’s industry market platform, which includes a wide-ranging program of curated events designed to foster agreements for coproductions and international distribution, and encourage new business opportunities.

Representatives from 46 countries will take part in the Souk, which runs from Dec. 3 to 6 and offers a chance to network and access key players in the emerging Saudi industry, along with some of the best from the wider Arab and African scenes.

This year, more than 350 distributors, producers, financiers, sales agents and festival representatives will take part in the Souk and participate in face-to-face meetings and sessions with project developers.

During last year’s festival, the Red Sea Souk hosted more than 560 meetings and welcomed more than 3,115 film and media professionals. It was credited with playing a significant role in connecting a new generation of emerging talent with established figures in the cinema industry.

Last year’s marketplace was managed by Saudi artist Zain Zedan, who told Arab News after the festival: “This year was a great first start and we are ready to work on the second edition. The energy is great and the possibilities are endless. We are creating history here.”

This year, cash awards will be provided by the Red Sea Fund and awarded by two juries. The Project Market jury will choose the recipients of Jury Special Mention awards for development ($35,000) and production ($100,000). All selected projects will be eligible for additional awards funded by Red Sea Souk sponsors and partners totaling $670,000.

Also as part of Red Sea Souk, the second Talent Days initiative will take place on Dec. 7 and 8. It will feature sessions designed to nurture the next generation of filmmakers and effectively offers an initiation into the cinema industry for aspiring filmmakers through inspirational talks and individual meetings. Acclaimed Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania will lead this year’s Talent Days.

The manager of the inaugural Talent Days last year was Rana Jarbou, a Saudi director who said that the aim was “to encourage up-and-coming young Saudi filmmakers and grow the local film industry.”

Alongside the Red Sea Souk, the competitions, the red-carpet galas, outdoor screenings, and other special presentations, the festival will also host a range of themed film programs such as Festival Favorites, New Saudi/New Cinema, Red Sea: Treasures, Red Sea: Arab and International Spectacular, Red Sea: Family and Children, Red Sea: Virtual Reality, and Red Sea: Series. In addition, Red Sea: New Vision is a new strand dedicated to filmmakers who push the boundaries of creativity with a style of genre-defining filmmaking that challenges audiences.

Kaleem Aftab, director of international programming for the festival, told Arab News about the vibrant scene within the Saudi film industry, especially after the success of the first RSIFF last year.

“The Saudi film industry is incredible, considering where it was just five years ago,” he said. “There's a lot of movement forward and a big shift in the right direction. We’re still at the beginning but it’s making a mark in the International Festival space.

“I think the success of the Red Sea Film Festival, the inaugural edition, really gave a positive feeling to Saudi people and I had the sense that cinema was being celebrated, cinema was a possibility as a career, cinema is something to be proud of rather than something to be scared of, to hide away. I think we’re seeing a change in the perception of the way people want to tell stories.”

Last week, RSIFF organizers announced that this year’s Yusr Honorary Awards would be presented to veteran Egyptian actor Yousra, acclaimed British director Guy Ritchie and Indian actor and producer Shah Rukh Khan, in recognition of their exceptional contributions to film.

Yousra was among the stars who attended the festival last year, during which she advised young Saudi filmmakers to “be patient. Do not rush to stardom, and love your career for what it is. Try and fail, and learn how to choose the right time and career circumstances. Remember, no one jumps to success.”

She added: “I want to see Saudi films that speak to the world, not to a certain region, so the world understands what and who you are.”

Pakistani singer Kaifi Khalil delights Jeddah audience with hit songs

Updated 29 January 2023

Pakistani singer Kaifi Khalil delights Jeddah audience with hit songs

  • Kaifi Khalil enjoyed a rapid rise to fame thanks to his mesmerizing vocals and soulful music
  • The singer said the love and warmth shown from the audience in Jeddah were 'spectacular'

JEDDAH: Rising Pakistani music star Kaifi Khalil captivated audience members at a concert held on Jan. 26 at the WA Hotel in Jeddah.

The singer enjoyed a rapid rise to fame thanks to his mesmerizing vocals and soulful music. During the concert, he performed recent release “Kahani Suno 2.0” — which hit global world charts last year — along with other desi, folk and Sufi songs.

Speaking to Arab News, Khalil said the amount of love and warmth shown from the audience in Jeddah at his first international concert was “spectacular,” adding: “I had promised myself to fill the evening with a rendition of all my songs and tried my best to make sure every single person had a good time.”

He said: “My excitement hit the roof when I first learned that I will be performing in Saudi Arabia. I cannot describe this moment and the love I have received from the time I stepped into the country.”

Pakistani singer Kaifi Khalil performs at the WA Hotel in Jeddah on January 26, 2023. (Supplied)

Although he has performed many times back in Pakistan, Khalil was overwhelmed to see the response from an international audience, which has inspired him to return to the Kingdom.

“The constant cheering from the crowd was pure magic. When the performance was coming to an end, it dawned on me that everything that I felt was so precious that I will cherish it forever,” he said.

The constant cheering from the crowd was pure magic. When the performance was coming to an end, it dawned on me that everything that I felt was so precious that I will cherish it forever.

Kaifi Khalil

After Khalil’s music went viral last year, the singer became an inspiration to many, with children, teenagers and adults attending in the Jeddah concert.

One concertgoer described the event as a “magical night,” adding: “I don’t know how many times I have listened to Kaifi Khalil’s songs. To watch him perform live was a dream come true moment. He has such a soulful voice that made the entire hall sing along with him.”

Mohammed Abdullah, another fan, said: “I was so excited to experience the vibe and music of Kaifi Khalil. He is totally a gem in the music industry. Besides, I would like to extend gratitude to the organizers for the very well executed event as we could watch him clearly from our seats.”

Alongside Khalil, the event also included versatile singers Abida Hussain and Saleem Rifiq.

Fans react as Pakistani singer Kafii Khalil performs onstage in Jeddah on January 26, 2023. (Supplied)

Nosheen Waseem, founder of Nosheen Arts Culture Center, which oversaw the concert, said that the center aim to take the entertainment industry in the Kingdom to the “next level.” The event was organized to mark the successful completion of the first year of NACC, which involved organizing a range of nonprofit events.

Salman Lodhi and Talha Abdul Ghafoor, who organized the event, said: “The turnout was incredible — around 300 people attended the musical night. The atmosphere was electric. Everyone had a great time and the audience was on their feet for the entire performance.”

ULTRA Abu Dhabi music festival releases lineup of headliners for debut edition

Updated 28 January 2023

ULTRA Abu Dhabi music festival releases lineup of headliners for debut edition

LONDON: The international music festival, ULTRA Worldwide, has announced the first wave of headliners set to play the inaugural edition of ULTRA Abu Dhabi on March 4-5 at Etihad Park.

“Multi-award winning and platinum-record selling artist Afrojack is no stranger to headlining ULTRA Main Stages across the world, and will be on hand to deliver yet another high-octane set,” organizers said.

“Responsible for some of the biggest hits in the world, Grammy-nominated Calvin Harris will bring the beats to Yas Island for one of his signature high-energy sets (and) Dharma Worldwide boss KSHMR will whip the crowd into a frenzy with his culture-crossing sonics,” they also said.

Gud Vibrations label co-founder NGHTMRE will appear on the Main Stage with his signature blend of electronic music and producer Skrillex, who has won eight Grammy Awards — more than any other electronic dance music artist, will bring his shapeshifting soundscapes to the festival.

ULTRA Abu Dhabi will also host ULTRA’s underground techno and house concept RESISTANCE, featuring Drumcode founder and Swedish techno titan Adam Beyer.

“Producer and EXHALE label boss Amelie Lens will return to the Middle East to deliver her mesmerising blend of techno, while British legends Sasha_John Digweed bring decades of dance floor expertise to Abu Dhabi,” they added.

Etihad Park, located on Yas Island, is the largest open-air venue in the region and one of the world’s fastest growing leisure and entertainment destinations.

“ULTRA Worldwide sets the benchmark when it comes to delivering the ultimate festival experience, combining top-tier talent, cutting-edge technology and large-scale productions,” the statement said, adding: “As the most international music festival brand boasting active events on all six inhabited continents, it’s no surprise that ULTRA Worldwide’s Middle East debut will be one of the most highly anticipated events across the UAE this year.”

The three-day festival will offer a premium general experience pass that allows access holders to dedicated entrance gates, toilets, food and beverage stands, as well as a private lounge area. It will also offer VVIP passes at both stages.


What Joyland achieved ‘unprecedented,’ producer says as film misses Oscar nominations

Updated 25 January 2023

What Joyland achieved ‘unprecedented,’ producer says as film misses Oscar nominations

  • Joyland continues to fight legal battles for its release in Punjab province where it has been banned
  • The film celebrates ‘transgender culture’ in Pakistan, won the Cannes ‘Queer Palm’ prize last year

KARACHI: After missing the nomination in the International Feature Film category for the 95th Academy Awards, the makers of Joyland promised to follow the “unprecedented” success of the film on Wednesday by coming up with more creative productions to dominate the global entertainment industry.
Joyland won the Cannes “Queer Palm” prize for best feminist-themed movie last year as well as the Jury Prize in the “Un Certain Regard” competition, a segment focusing on young, innovative cinema talent. It also made it to the ongoing Sundance Film Festival 2023 in the United States.
Last month, the Pakistani film also featured in the list of 15 outstanding international productions that advanced to the final nomination stage ahead of the award ceremony scheduled to take place in March. However, it could not make the cut in the list of final five.
“What Joyland has been able to achieve so far is unprecedented and gives us hope for many more films to come out of Pakistan and take the global stage,” the film’s co-producer and casting director Sana Jafri told Arab News. “Being selected in the top 15 films out of over a hundred films at the Academy Awards is a testimony of the talent and hard work that went into creating the film and shows the potential of the creatives in Pakistan, especially keeping in mind the limited resources and support we have.”
Despite receiving critical acclaim abroad, Joyland has had a tough run in Pakistan that banned its screening at movie theaters last November by reversing a previous all-clear for release order. The film, which celebrates “transgender culture” in Pakistan, was later allowed to be released in some parts of the country, though it remains banned in the most populous Punjab province.
“While we are still fighting a legal battle to get the film released in Punjab for over two months, every day our inbox is filled with messages of people asking us about the release and it is heartbreaking to know that our own people have been deprived of what is theirs,” Jafri continued.
She added Pakistan had seldom celebrated its own creatives and hoped to witness a change soon.
The Joyland producer maintained there were many important voices and stories in the country that needed to be heard while pointing out that everyone should have the freedom to talk about what is important to them.
“We, as a nation, need to stop policing artists,” Jafri said. “This isn’t something new for us. We did this to [the 18th century Punjabi poet] Bulleh Shah and [Urdu short story writer] Saadat Hassan Manto. I hope we learn our lesson before it is too late.”
Joyland stars an ensemble cast including Ali Junejo, Rasti Farooq, Alina Khan, Sarwat Gilani, Sania Saeed, Sohail Sameer and Salman Peer.
Reacting to the film missing the final nomination for the Oscars, veteran Pakistani actress Sania Saeed said: “It didn’t make it, it didn’t make it. It has come this far and is still going strong despite everything. Also, a first to have been shown and won so many awards around the world at the most prestigious festivals, made some money too. We all worked so hard. We had so much fun working on it and with each other. I am so grateful.”

‘Extension of their personality’: Meet Pakistani TikTokers taking style risks to amass followers

Updated 24 January 2023

‘Extension of their personality’: Meet Pakistani TikTokers taking style risks to amass followers

  • Growing number of Pakistani influencers are aiming to make unique fashion statements
  • Stylists welcome young people expressing their own personalities and styles on social media

KARACHI: Popular Pakistani TikToker Uroosa Khan loves changing her hair color “frequently.” And Tahir Abbas takes pains to design flamboyant costumes for his musical performances on the popular short-video app.

Khan and Abbas are among a growing number of Pakistani TikTok stars who are going against the grain, using unique hair styles and color, makeup, clothes, tattoos and dance moves to make a “statement” and draw followers in a country where over 20 million people use the video app.

Uroosa Khan, who currently has 60,000 followers on TikTok and creates transition videos, says her unique selling point to draw in a larger audience is her hair.

“I have experimented with almost every [hair] color on myself,” Khan, 26, told Arab News. “I was bullied in school for being a tomboy so I changed my look to stand out from the crowd. It actually gives me confidence and now has become a part of my personality.”

It was “socially challenging,” Khan said, when she first experimented with a “funky” hair color in 2016.

“But I was in my vibe from the start and I didn’t care about criticism. Now, it’s different. Everyone appreciates it,” the influencer said, adding that she complimented her hair with “funky makeup looks, including glittery eyes, blue lipsticks and neon eye liners.”

“It looks so colorful and reflects my personality,” she said. “I really love to see how my followers, even my friends, ask for my unique hair color advice. The hair transformation actually gives me so much confidence that people’s negative opinions don’t affect me.”

Another TikToker, Daniya Kanwal, who has nearly a million followers on TikTok and creates dance and lifestyle content, said showcasing unique haircuts like a boy bob are “all about how comfortable and confident you feel.”

“I’ve had short hair for most years of my childhood. I remember I was diagnosed with a disease and I had to go bald,” she said.

“Those were the days I felt so different from everyone, I wanted to hide my face and never look up again. The younger me was not out of the box, but who I am right now is the exact opposite, I like to experiment with my hair and looks, and be confident in each one of them.”

Kanwal also likes making a “statement” with accessories.

“What makes my accessories great is thrifting and picking little things when I travel,” the 20-year-old said. “You can turn a boring outfit into a cool one by accessorizing it the right way and carrying it with confidence.”

Though it is sometimes difficult for people to understand her unique styles and she has been the victim of online trolling, Kanwal said it did not bother her.

“Social media trolls are obviously always there and for people it’s a little hard to digest someone’s style if it’s not what they expect (someone) of that gender to look like,” she said.

“At some point, my younger version would’ve thought about the validation from people on how I should dress or cut my hair but this version of me accepts me for who I really am and wants to style in the way I feel most confident in.”

Tahir Abbas, with 235,000 followers on TikTok, said amassing new followers required taking style risks.

“I try to wear something different and mostly design my own outfits. In cases where I opt for a designer, I do my homework first,” said Abbas, whose TikTok content features original musical performances.

“For my recent album ‘Ramz,’ I designed the dresses myself. The jacket I am wearing in the song ‘Mann Meriyan,’ ... I bought the cloth, the patches and did the whole design,” Abbas said, describing a bright orange jacket with colorful patches sown on.

Mehek Saeed, a Lahore-based stylist, welcomed the young stars for expressing their unique styles on social media.

“Style is a form of self-expression, particularly, when people put themselves out there on social platforms such as Instagram and TikTok,” she said. “So, if these TikTokers have bright-colored hair or bright eye shadow, they are probably trying to put across a mood or just trying to express themselves. And I am all for it.”

“This hair and this makeup is probably an extension of their personality,” she added. “More power to them.”

Iranian women take center stage at Sundance film festival

Updated 23 January 2023

Iranian women take center stage at Sundance film festival

  • Their inclusion in Sundance’s line-up follows four months of mass demonstrations in Iran, triggered by anger over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in teh hands of religious police

PARK CITY, US: Movies by and about Iranian women took center stage at the Sundance film festival this weekend, as diaspora filmmakers reflected on female-led protests and the deadly challenges of censorship and resistance in their ancestral home.
“Joonam,” a documentary about a three-generation family of Iranian women now living in Vermont, and “The Persian Version,” a colorful but candid dramedy which hops between Iran and New York over several decades, received world premieres on Saturday.
“Shayda,” a drama directed by Noora Niasari about a Persian woman who flees her abusive husband in Australia, debuted earlier at the high-profile independent film festival in Utah.
Their inclusion in Sundance’s line-up follows four months of mass demonstrations in Iran, triggered by anger over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after her arrest for violating the Islamic republic’s strict dress rules.
At least 481 people have been killed in the crackdown and at least 109 others are facing execution in protest-related cases, in addition to the four already put to death, according to NGO Iran Human Rights.
The protesters “are literally putting themselves on the line... I stand in support with them 100 percent,” said “Joonam” director Sierra Urich.


Movies by and about Iranian women that are featured at the festival:

Joonam,” a documentary about a three-generation family of Iranian women now living in Vermont,

The Persian Version,” a colorful but candid dramedy which hops between Iran and New York over several decades

Shayda,” a drama directed by Noora Niasari about a Persian woman who flees her abusive husband in Australia

“You can’t speak freely in Iran, they’re imprisoning filmmakers and imprisoning artists,” Urich told AFP.
“I can speak freely outside of Iran — to an extent.”
Iran has arrested a number of celebrities from the country’s film industry in connection with the protest movement. Renowned director Jafar Panahi has been in prison six months following an earlier conviction for “propaganda against the system.”
While US-born Urich cannot visit Iran for security reasons, her film chronicles her efforts to connect with and better understand the country by learning Farsi and interviewing her mother and grandmother.

She learns about the murder of an ancestor, and the story of how her grandmother was married at 14 to a man she met before reaching puberty.
While her grandmother is happy to reflect, her mother worries it is “very dangerous” to delve into the family’s past on camera, at one point warning her daughter that in Iran, “the filmmaker will be the one hanged.”
“Coming into Sundance, the film is on the world stage. I think Iranians are always weighing how truthful they will be, versus what they will say causing consequences for people that are back home,” said Urich.
“It wasn’t until my grandmother shared the story of her grandfather’s martyrdom that I really understood this wall of fear that had been built by this authoritarian regime, to so many people in Iran, outside of Iran.
“My mom was trying to protect me from that reality.”

In “The Persian Version,” rebellious young Iranian-American Leila (played by Layla Mohammadi) has a fractured relationship with her immigrant mother, caused by Leila’s sexuality and their seemingly different views on the role of women.
But as she uncovers the truth about her parents’ experiences in Iran and their departure from the country, both generations of women gain perspective on their complicated heritage.
“I’m proud to have an Iranian film here at this moment about women,” said director Maryam Keshavarz at the film’s premiere, where cast members wore badges in Iranian flag colors with the protest movement’s slogan “Woman Life Freedom.”
“I think it speaks to the resilience through the decades, not just now. It’s been forever in the making,” she said.
“Even before this regime, women have always pushed against society for what they’ve wanted.
“They’ve upended the norms and they’ve learned to find their way of being free.”
Keshavarz has not been able to return to Iran since the release of her debut film “Circumstance,” about two teenage Persian girls who fall in love.
Urich still hopes to visit one day, but is watching the protests from afar, and for now hopes that her film can be “a small part of that struggle for freedom.”
“I think part of why it’s so moving to see what’s happening in Iran right now, and to be here with these other filmmakers,” she said, “is it’s a real sense of community, and being able to tell our stories openly.”