Oliver Stone to Head Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Festival Jury, Lineup Announced

Nick Vivarelli

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Oliver Stone will preside over the main jury of Saudi Arabia’s nascent Red Sea International Film Festival, which has unveiled its inaugural lineup.

The fest will feature the Middle East premiere of Harvey Weinstein-inspired workplace abuse drama “The Assistant” amid a fresh mix of feature films and docs from Europe, the U.S., Asia and Africa launching in the region on top of a robust representation of Arab films.

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Significantly, the opener will be “The Book of Sun” by debuting Saudi directorial duo Faris and Suhaib Godus, about a teenager named Husam who, prompted by the growing phenomenon of Saudi YouTube content, embarks with a group of geeks on a mission to make a no-budget horror pic. Production of this film was supported by the fest.

Red Sea festival chief Mahmoud Sabbagh in a statement called the film “a testament to the passionate community of pioneering filmmakers who have inspired and drive Saudi cinema culture.” Sabbagh is himself a filmmaker known for the groundbreaking comedies “Barakah Meets Barakah” and “Amra and the Second Marriage.” 

The ambitious event is Saudi’s first full-fledged film festival and market, with international ambitions after the country in late 2017 removed its religion-related ban on cinemas. It will run March 12-21 in the historic district of Jeddah, a Unesco World Heritage site.

Red Sea artistic director Hussain Currimbhoy, who previously served as a documentary programmer at the Sundance Film Festival, has assembled a competition lineup comprising several recent titles that have surfaced on the fest circuit, such as Angola-set “Air Conditioner” by Angolan multi-hyphenate Fradique (a.k.a. Mario Bastos), which premiered recently at Rotterdam; Mongolian/German director Uisenma Borchu’s semi-autobiographical drama about roots and sensuality “Black Milk” that will soon world premiere in Berlin’s Panorama section; and Chinese high-school bullying drama “Better Days,” which launched from Macau last December.

Aside from “The Assistant,” the other U.S. entry in competition is World War II drama “Resistance,” starring Jesse Eisenberg as Marcel Marceau, who was a member of the French Resistance, and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz. IFC is releasing the film stateside in late March.

All entries are expected to come to Jeddah accompanied by either director, cast or producer or a combination thereof.

“Aznavour by Charles,” about late French-Armenian crooner Charles Aznavour, directed by Marc di Domenico and narrated by Romain Duris, and “Beirut, la vie en rose,” a look at the lives of the Christian elite in Lebanon living in a bubble amid ongoing civil conflict directed by Eric Mother, both from France, are the two docs competing for top prizes.

India will be represented by “Eeb Allay Ooo!,” the social drama with a comic streak by Prateek Vats about the head of a monkey repeller squad that bowed at Pingyao in China before its Indian premiere at the Mumbai Film Festival, and is also playing in Berlin.

Out-of-competition titles include “1982” by Lebanese first-timer Oualid Mouaness featuring star multi-hyphenate Nadine Labaki as a schoolteacher in service on the day of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, and Tunisian divorce drama “Noura’s Dream” in which star Hind Sabri plays a mother of three torn between her abusive husband and a lover. Both titles have been making the festival rounds.

The fitting theme of the Saudi fest’s inaugural edition is “Changing the Script” which organizers said is encapsulated by its previously announced career achievement awards that will go to Kim Dong-ho, co-founder of the Busan International Film Festival and one of the best-known figures in Korean cinema; Daniela Michel, founder and general director of Mexico’s Morelia Intl. Film Festival; and former French culture minister Jack Lang.

Somewhat like Sundance, the Red Sea fest is positioning itself as a year-round film lab/incubator that will operate under the banner of Red Sea Lodge, run in partnership with Italy’s Torino Film Lab.

The fest’s general manager is the now defunct Dubai fest’s former top exec Shivani Pandya. Meanwhile, Antoine Khalife, also a Dubai fest veteran, is director of the Saudi fest’s Arab Program, while French industry veteran Julie Bergeron heads its nascent film market.