A glimpse of the previous edition of the Saudi Film Festival.
Muhammad Yusuf, Features Writer
Some of the biggest names in Gulf cinema have been heading to the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra) from June 2-9, in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, for the 8th edition of the Saudi Film Festival.
This year’s theme, “Poetic Cinema,” honours Khalil Al-Rawaf, the first Arab Hollywood star, and director Khalid Al-Siddiq, a pioneer of Kuwaiti cinema. Al-Rawaf (1895–2000) was the first Saudi immigrant to the United States.
He managed to find his way to America, through marriage to an American woman. In the US, he made a foray into acting and performed with John Wayne in the 1937 film I Cover the War! in which he played a Bedouin guard. He was the first Arab to appear in a Hollywood film.
Al-Siddiq was born in Kuwait in 1945. He is best recognised as the director of what is considered the first feature film directed by a Gulf national, The Cruel Sea (Bas ya Bahar, 1972), which he also financed.
Organised by the Cinema Association, in partnership with Ithra with the support of the Saudi Film Commission, the eight-day event brings together filmmakers and other film professionals including scriptwriters, actors, producers, programmers and investors, as well as film enthusiasts with a series of programnes aimed at showcasing, promoting and elevating the region’s film industry.
With an expanded footprint that for the first time sees entries from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, in addition to submissions from Saudi Arabia, the festival features 80 films, of which 36 are participating in the competition. The opening film was Ali Saeed’s Old Phone Number, an Ithra co-produced short film recently presented at the Cannes Film Festival Market’s Short Film Corner alongside Raneem Almohandis’ film, Swing. In addition to the Golden Palm competition, films are also being screened in two other categories – Saudi and Gulf Films. As with the previous two editions, the festival follows a hybrid format, with both physical and virtual programmes.
The winners of the festival’s Script Lab competition were announced during the opening ceremony, which was attended by 1,000 guests, including actors, directors, filmmakers and media.
The Saudi Film Festival is one of the Kingdom and region’s premier film events focused on supporting and developing talent and content. It is a hub for filmmakers to screen their films and develop their scripts and projects through workshops and seminars, while also creating a platform for them to connect and network with their peers, industry professionals and other stakeholders.
Local, Arab and international experts including writer James Savoca, producer Habib Attia, scholar and filmmaker Hossam Elouan, and entertainment lawyer Matti Rockenbauch present masterclasses, seminars and workshops on a range of topics including writing, directing, cinematography, music, production, funding and marketing.
The festival’s Production Market is also being attended by major film producers locally and internationally, enabling filmmakers to pitch their ideas in person and online.
Since its inception in the first edition, the Saudi Film Festival has printed and distributed more than 50 books on cinema. This year adds 14 titles, where film and literature fans have had the opportunity to meet their authors during book signing sessions.
Aspiring filmmakers can get hands-on experience in animated filmmaking during a 30-minute stop motion workshop. The event also features an exhibition of 50 vintage cameras and other cinema equipment used between 1910 and 1980.
Launched in 2008 by the Saudi Arabian Society for Culture and Arts, Ithra has been the strategic partner for the Saudi Film Festival annually since its 5th edition in 2019.
Ithra is the driving force behind several initiatives supporting Saudi Arabia’s film industry. Ithra’s Cinema, one of the few art house cinemas in the region, provides a purposeful and technological space for the Kingdom’s film talent to hone their skills and showcase their work. It is home to Saudi Film Days and the Saudi Film Society, which presents a full programme throughout the year. Furthermore, Ithra’s film productions have helped dozens of filmmakers bring their dreams to life. As one of the largest film producers in the Kingdom, Ithra has produced more than 20 films, 15 of which have received local, regional and international awards. Ithra’s first commissioned feature film was Joud. Described as an “ancient poem for modern times,” the critically acclaimed film uses an experimental story structure derived from a pre-Islamic form of poetry, the “Qasida”. Upcoming releases include Khalid Fahad’s Valley Road; the documentary Anti-Cinema by Ali Saeed and Hassan Saeed, which brings the Kingdom’s film heritage to the big screen; and Sea of Sands by celebrated Egyptian screenwriter and producer, Mohamed Hefzy and director A.B. Shawky.
Ithra is also behind the upcoming documentary Iees by first-time director Abdullah Saharty, which focuses on the cultural significance of the Arabian camel and its impact on reshaping the peninsula and its future. In addition, Ithra offers a learning experience through a training and shadowing programme, providing an opportunity for those passionate about filmmaking to craft their career in the field. “We provide a purposeful and technological space for the Kingdom’s film talent to hone their skills and show their work, and we are eager to share our new productions for this year and 2023,” said Majed Z. Samman, Head of Performing Arts & Cinema at Ithra.