Though the Red Sea Film Festival will feature a slew of films from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region – including 11 feature films from Saudi Arabia – there is a rich roster of international fare set to launch locally from Jeddah.
Kaleem Aftab, the festival’s director of international programming, says they received lots more submissions for this year’s third edition. He is particularly proud of the presence in competition of Indian-born auteur Tarsem Singh’s romancer “Dear Jassi,” the first film set in India by the flamboyant director of “The Cell,” and of Japanese master Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Venice prizewinner “Evil Does Not Exist.”
Peppered through various Red Sea sections are the MENA region premieres of other high-profile titles such as Sofia Coppola’s “Priscilla”; Belgian-based Moroccan duo Adil El Arbi & Bilall Fallah flashy third feature “Gangsta”; British director James Marsh’s biographical film about Irish playwright Samuel Beckett “Dance First”; Argentinian director Rodrigo Moreno’s existential heist movie “The Delinquents”; and the international outing of actor-turned director Jennifer Esposito’s drama “Fresh Kills,” about the women behind New York City mobsters in which she co-stars with Annabella Sciorra, among many other entries.
Aftab spoke to Variety ahead of the fest about what he looks for in selecting movies for Saudi audiences.
Are you happy with your “catch” of titles at Red Sea?
What we certainly found this year is we had a far higher number of films submitted and a higher caliber of directors that approached us wanting to be in competition. Having directors in competition like Tarsem Singh and Hamaguchi, which we saw early, before they premiered. I think this is a great sign of respect for Red Sea and shows a desire to be part of the festival. In that sense I feel we are making great strides, especially in our part of the world [Saudi] in terms of elevating the culture, which is one of our stated goals. And then in terms of building bridges, we are showing lots of films from North America and Europe, as well as some from Bollywood, as we have previously. But this this year we are starting to make better inroads into Latin America, an area I feel that we can still build upon. And for the first time, we have a film from Uzbekistan, so we are really branching out.
How does censorship due to cultural sensitivity affect what you select?
To be honest, that’s quite a hard question for me to answer because I’m British. My cinema education was in Britain, although my parents are obviously from Pakistan and I grew up in a very traditional Muslim family, so I understand some of the nuances. Still I can’t say – beyond being a journalist for many years and what I’ve seen in terms of what has been shown [in the region] – [that I know] where the boundaries are. What I try and do is push the envelope and see what is acceptable in public spaces. But my first priority is to show the best films. Also we are also looking at how we can build the Saudi market, so often I am led by what films have been picked by distributors in the region because we want to elevate those films.
On that score, how important is it for Red Sea to have the MENA region premiere?
On the international side, nearly every single film is a MENA premiere. Or if it isn’t a MENA premiere, it will be for an extremely special reason.
Saudi has a very young population. In broad terms, what are their tastes?
What I discovered last year was that the Saudi audience has different tastes compared with the European audience – or I should say the British audience, because that’s where I grew up. When I started my career as a journalist, I was often told that I was a contrarian. But as I’ve grown older and wiser – and as the world got a greater understanding of what biases and unconscious biases [exist] – I realized that my own experience of what I felt was a good film just came naturally because of my own different experiences growing up different to my peers, whom I respect a lot in the critics’ world. Then when I came to program in Saudi Arabia, I felt like, immediately, our tastes were very similar. So last year when I played Fatih Akin’s “Rhinegold” – which still hasn’t had a wide release [globally] and didn’t play in many festivals in Europe, but contrary to all that has been a huge hit in Germany – I just saw people’s faces in the audience light up. The connection to this story was so different, and so exactly how I felt when I was watching it.
What are some more under-the-radar titles that you think might similarly resonate with audiences at Red Sea this year?
Well, I don’t want to go out on a limb too much before they are shown, but I think people will be very struck by the new film by [Pakistani-U.S. director] Iram Bilal, “Wakhri: One of a Kind” [which will have its world premiere at the fest and follows a widowed school teacher in Pakistan who becomes a viral sensation overnight when she accidentally unleashes her unabashed opinions on social media]. I feel like that is a film that talks about an incident that happened in Pakistan and is changing the narrative on that. I’m also happy to have Zarrar Kahn’s [non-conventional horror film] “In Flames,” also from Pakistan [it is Pakistan’s international Oscar contender], which changed the genre.
And then on the other side, I feel that way about Uzbekistani film “Sunday” [directed by Shokir Kholikov] which has only been released in Uzbekistan but won the best film award in Shanghai. It is a film that no one – none of our programmers – had heard of and just came through our submissions process. It’s the story of young sons who give their parents new modern equipment – like new TVs and fridges – and it kind of ruins their parents’ lives. We see how the transition from the analog to the digital world has had a tremendous impact on human society, and I think that will really connect with our audiences across the board.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.