Red Sea Film Festival Director of International Programming Speaks on Freedom, Championing Outsiders

“We have a strong program that deals with global capitalism, the economic situation of today, the story of the movement of people, how the movement of people has nourished culture around the world, how it has strengthened culture.” This is how Kaleem Aftab, director of international programming of Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Film Festival introduced his selection, which brings films by Luca Guadagnino, Park Chan-wook and Sam Mendes to Jeddah.

“If we look at the European films, we see a number of films by directors such as Alice Diop, Faith Akin, Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah … They’re voices that are being heard and I’m really enjoying being able to champion those voices,” the film critic and programmer continues. “The festival has an international outlook. If you look at the competition, it is African, Asian and Arab films, which I think makes us very unique. It says immediately that we are looking to champion voices that might not get such a big say at other festivals around the world and that’s something very interesting to me, growing up as I did, with a Muslim background in London, always feeling like an outsider.

“But then we also have a fabulous program that takes in the best of American cinema. There are so many films from studios and also big independent films. We have the Palme d’Or winner [Ruben Östlund’s ‘Triangle of Sadness,’ which plays at the festival as part of the International Spectacular strand]. I’m especially proud of the Festival Favorites section because I know a lot of people talk about diversity around the world, but the program that we have, if you look at the filmmakers, they’re literally almost all filmmakers who are outsiders making films in some way about a country where they are deemed outsiders, wrongly in my opinion, because they are second generation or they’re filmmakers who live in another country and are making films elsewhere.”

When asked about screening uncensored versions of films that deal with themes of queerness, pointed social critiques and graphic depictions of violence and nudity in the settings of Saudi Arabia, which only lifted its 35-year ban on commercial theaters in 2018, Aftab was categorical: “I’d like to clear up a misconception. We are in 2022, we’re not in 1970 and the world has moved on. The Arab world has moved on somewhat and what has become acceptable is changing. As we’ve seen throughout the world, what is acceptable and what is not acceptable changes through time. So we’re at a stage where the Arab world, and what the filmmakers are making, what we see onscreen, has changed.”

He added: “What we’re seeing in the reality of people’s lives have changed. The public and the private space has changed because of the internet. I feel we’re in a moment where we’re in flux and I reflect that in my program. We’re looking at life, we’re trying to build cultural bridges, trying to make a program that will stand against any international program, and we’re also not just looking outwards. We’re looking inwards. And the challenge is that cinema and art in itself can be a mirror to society, and we want to reflect that.”

Aftab has only one thing to say to those who question the carte blanche given to the Red Sea programmers: “I definitely feel that freedom, and I can say that if you’re a skeptic, you’re going to be a skeptic. I just like to let the program do the talking and people who come to see, they can comment on the program and they can make those decisions. I feel a freedom, whether people believe that or not, it’s up to them. But I feel when you see the program, when you experience Jeddah and Saudi, and it’s not like the common misconception; it will surprise people and the program will surprise people, but I think if you’re from Jeddah or Saudi, then it’s less of a surprise than to the outside world.”

Speaking on the importance of introducing independent films to Saudi audiences, the programmer reinforced the need to foster the cinemagoing habit. “I feel very excited to be introducing not just films but art in general. And beyond that, I feel very passionate, as I do whenever I’m in London, Paris or New York, about the independent art scene. We all know the struggles that the independent arthouse scene is having throughout the world, with the challenges of streamers, with so many new modes of entertainment. So to be somewhere where cinema can feel exciting and new, and where we can introduce a different type of voice and hopefully create a grounding that would make some people feel that they want to open cinemas or they want to become distributors or exhibitors, that’s very exciting. Ultimately, I think the market will decide for itself, but I’m very hopeful we can have an influence.”

As for how his program relates to the festival’s 2022 theme of “Film Is Everything,” Aftab said: “It relates to it in a big way because it shows us how film is the voice, film is a voice for everybody. And if you can find your voice and you’re willing to speak your own truth, then you’re going to find a deal of happiness. Cinema and art give that opportunity like no other medium.”

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