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Saudi Arabia rolls out the red carpet

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Less than four years after the ban on cinemas was lifted, Saudi Arabia will host its first major film festival starting Monday as it contemplates a lucrative new industry.

Cinemas were banned for decades until April 2018, but over the next 10 days, actors and directors will be walking the red carpet at the Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah.

The festival begins a day after Jeddah hosted its first Formula 1 Grand Prix, also an attempt to present Saudi Arabia in a different light.

It will present 138 feature and short films from 67 countries in more than 30 languages.

Among them are the critically acclaimed “The Alleys”, directed by Bassel Ghandour, and non-Arab films, including “Cyrano” and “’83” by Joe Wright, the story of India’s Cup victory. of the cricket world in 1983.

The festival is also expected to honor Haifaa al-Mansour, the first Saudi female director, who shot “Wadjda” in 2012, winner of several international awards.

The rise of Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in 2017 ushered in a number of reforms.

“The idea of ​​organizing a film festival in Saudi Arabia was unimaginable just five years ago,” said Egyptian art critic Mohamed Abdel Rahman.

The festival also has an eye on a booming market for film making and consumption in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia’s annual box office could reach $ 950 million by 2030, according to a report by multinational accounting firm PwC.

He estimates that the kingdom’s projected population of nearly 40 million could absorb up to 2,600 movie screens.

– Underground industry –

Social change in the conservative Gulf state has included lifting the ban on women driving and allowing concerts and other mixed events, although a strict crackdown on dissent remains in place.

“Before the cinemas reopened in 2018, the industry was working underground,” said Saudi director Ahmed Al-Mulla, who has run an annual Saudi film festival in the eastern city of Dammam since 2008.

“There was no ability to film or get funding. It all depended on the individual’s efforts.”

Industry watchers, however, say the Saudi film industry still lacks expertise, as well as investment.

But some big projects are now becoming reality.

MBC Studios, the production arm of Saudi Arabian-owned media giant, MBC Group, went live in 2018 with huge budgets.

He is currently shooting the action film “Desert Warrior” in the region of Neom, also on the Red Sea.

But it’s not just about big budgets, Al-Mulla said.

Cinema needs “a high level of freedom of expression … from the staging of women to the freedom to broach different subjects,” he said.

“Cinema is the soft power that can pave the way for the success of the social and economic changes underway (in the kingdom).”

Saudi Arabia has had a strict interpretation of Islam for decades and despite the modernization campaign, social restrictions remain in place.

“Cinema is not just an art but must be transformed into a culture in Saudi Arabia,” Al-Mulla said.

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