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Baz Luhrmann, Tarak Ben Ammar & Joel Kinnaman Give Verdict On Saudi Arabia’s Rising Film Biz As Red Sea Fest Kicks Off With A-Listers & Local Talent

Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Film Festival launched its third edition on Thursday evening with a characteristically starry red carpet featuring the likes of Michelle Williams, Johnny Depp, Sharon Stone and Will Smith.

The kick-off had more of a local feel than the first two editions, however, with an Arabic-language film, the fantasy adventure HWJN, opening the festival for the first time.

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Set against the backdrop of the festival’s home city of Jeddah, the drama stars rising Saudi actor Baraa Alem, as an endearing young djinn who falls for a young woman, played by emerging actress Nour Alkhadra.

Its selection as the opening title is seen as a sign of the growing strength of the film and TV business in Saudi Arabia, just six years after the lifting of the country’s 35-year cinema ban as part of its 2030 strategy aimed at moving the economy away from oil.

Directed by Iraqi Dubai-based filmmaker Yasir Al Yasiri, HWJN is one of the most ambitious films to come out of production pact between UAE-based film company Image Nation and exhibition giant VOX Cinemas and global media giant the MBC Group.

“It feels surreal to me,” Al Yasiri told Deadline on the red carpet. “We’re in the city where the story takes place… it feels like a fairy-tale.”

The film is playing Out of Competition in the Arab Spectacular sidebar, while another 17 films hailing from the MENA region and Africa are competing in the Main Competition. Elvis and Moulin Rouge! Director Baz Luhrmann is presiding over the jury, featuring Frieda Pinto, Joel Kinnaman and Amina Khalil.

Luhrmann told Deadline he had spent time in Saudi Arabia before taking on the jury president role to see the country for himself.

“I came in a quiet way to do my own investigation… For 30 years there was no cinema and then, all of a sudden, movies are being seen. I got to know the studios but what I was really struck by was the young, emerging filmmakers and how hungry they are to tell their story,” he said.

“That’s why I am here. At a time when politics fails us, storytellers have to be heard and that’s what we’re here to support.”

Kinnaman has also been in Saudi Arabia before but revealed it is his first time in a jury.

‘I thought it was an exciting opportunity to see some really interesting films, especially from this region. I think it’s really exciting what’s happening here. The more cultures intermingle the better,” he said.

The Suicide Squad star also gave an update on the shoot of Neill Blomkamp’s postponed alien abduction thriller They Found Us, which shut down pre-production in Saudi Arabia in October.

They’re hoping to get it done early next year,” he said.

The star will be back on the red carpet this evening as the star of John Woo’s revenge thriller Silent Night, which gets a gala screening tonight.

This year’s edition of the Red Sea Film Festival has come together against the backdrop of the global geopolitical tensions of the Israel-Hamas conflict and the tail-end of the Hollywood actors’ strike.

These challenges have resulted in the festival announcing its A-list guest list later than usual, while more prestige guests are expected to be announced as the event continues.

In spite of the festival’s logistical challenges in the backdrop, there is a sense among industry attendees that Saudi Arabia’s efforts to kick-start a film business from scratch over the past six years are rapidly coming together.

Top French-Tunisian Tarak Ben Ammar, who currently has Antoine Fuqua’s Denzel Washington-starring action picture The Equalizer 3 in cinemas worldwide in partnership with Sony Pictures Entertainment, said Saudi was “the place to be” for film and TV territory in the region.

“I cannot not be here. When you see that my latest movie Equalizer with Denzel grossed six million euros ($6.5 million) here and only two-and-a-half ($2.7m) in Spain, or in Italy, that shows you this market is exponential,” he said.

“That’s fascinating and here’s the difference. In the past, Arab filmmakers had to go to festivals to make co-productions, I wouldn’t say to beg but to solicit financing. [In Saudi Arabia] They have 38 million people, 70% under the age of 30. This is the place where Arab filmmakers, Saudis of course, and others can express themselves.”

He suggested the situation for film and TV in Saudi Arabia was similar to Korea. “That’s the model. They have the means, they have their hunger, they have their passion,” he said.

The Red Sea International Film Festival runs November 30 to December 9.

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