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Joe Wright’s ‘Cyrano’ to Open Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Film Festival

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The Middle East premiere of British director Joe Wright’s dazzling romantic drama “Cyrano” will open the Red Sea Film Festival, which is Saudi Arabia’s first full-fledged film festival and market with international ambitions.

The ambitious event, which is a key plank of the kingdom’s plans to diversify its oil-based economy and become a prominent Middle East moviemaking hub – following the 2017 removal of its religion-related ban on cinema – is set to run Dec. 6-15 in the historic district of the city of Jeddah, a Unesco World Heritage site.

Organizers on Tuesday unveiled a well-assorted lineup featuring lots of fresh Arabic fare interspersed with high-profile international pics such as, besides “Cyrano,” Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Elena Ferrante adaptation “The Lost Daughter,” Ana Lily Amirpour’s “Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon,” and Oscar-nominated Japanese filmmaker Mamoru Hosoda’s anime feature “Belle,” which will open the fest’s Next Generation section.

Palestinian helmer Hany Abu Assad’s “Huda’s Saloon” has been set as the opener of the 16-title competition where Arabic pics will vie side by side with global ones for the fest’s Golden Yusr Award.

The festival’s closer is the world premiere of Egyptian director Amr Salama’s supernatural dramedy “Bara El Manhag,” about an orphaned boy who breaks into a haunted house and finds a ghost who becomes a friend and mentor. Salama is known internationally for his drama “Sheikh Jackson” about an Islamic cleric who is obsessed with Michael Jackson.

Saudi producer Mohammed Al-Turki, who is the event’s chairman, called the Red Sea’s first edition “truly a landmark moment” in a statement, noting that it will “serve as a launchpad for young Saudi and Arab talent,” and “support the development of our flourishing industry.”

The producer, who has shepherded several Hollywood pics including Richard Gere-starrer “Arbitrage,” added that Red Sea also aims to “bring together the global film industry to network, share knowledge and forge partnerships.”

What remains unclear, however, is how strong the international presence at the Red Sea fest will be, especially in terms of talent.

Organizers declined to specify which talent will be coming to Jeddah to promote the screenings in Saudi Arabia of the international films, starting with “Cyrano.”

Saudi’s ambitions to build a film industry have been hindered by the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and reports that appear to implicate Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the assassination have prompted media companies from the U.S. and elsewhere to clam up. However, there are signals that this is changing.

Cameras are expected to start rolling in mid-November in Saudi’a AlUla region on Gerard Butler action thriller “Kandahar,” directed by Ric Roman Waugh, which Saudi-owned Middle East TV giant MBC is co-producing and co-financing along with The Capstone Group and CAA Media Finance.

SRMG, a Saudi Arabian publishing and media company which is publicly traded, remains a minority investor in PMC, Variety’s parent company.

What’s certain is that Red Sea organizers have assembled a robust and smartly selected lineup with an accent on Arabic, and specifically Saudi, movies, including Jeddah-born, U.S.-trained, director Hamzah Jamjoom’s “Rupture,” a high concept thriller about a Saudi woman who is pregnant and has to decipher reality in a drug-induced state of mind while a killer is trying to get to her and her family. Pic, which will screen in the fest’s main competition, stars Billy Zane and U.K. actors Ross Anderson and Kirsty Besterman (“Doctor Who”).

“To be able to start so strongly, with such a wide array of incredible storytelling from both the Arab world and further afield, is significant and speaks to the promising future of this festival, both this year and beyond,” said in a statement Red Sea’s artistic director Edouard Waintrop, who is a former Cannes Directors’ Fortnight chief.

Confirmed international guests, at this stage, include French screen icon Catherine Deneuve and France’s former culture minister Jack Lang, who is president of Paris-based Institut du Monde Arabe, and also Argentinian-born French filmmaker Gaspar Noé. 

Also scheduled to attend are groundbreaking Saudi filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour, whose drama “Wadjda,” about a young girl who wants to ride a bicycle, which is prohibited, made a splash in 2012; and Arabic stars Laila Eloui, Yousra, and Hend Sabry.

The Red Sea Souk, the fest’s market side, which will run Dec. 8-11, will comprise several events, provide curated meetings to foster networking and dish out more that $800,000 to the winners among 23 selected Arabic projects.

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