“Your Story, Your Festival,” is the theme for this year‘s Red Sea International Film Festival, with organizers promising “a unique and powerful platform for celebrating film, connecting cultures and expanding horizons while welcoming stories from all walks of life.”
The festival’s third edition will take place Nov. 30-Dec. 9 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Alongside an international line-up that includes Michael Mann’s Ferrari, Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla, Ava Duvernay’s Origin and Hayao Miyazaki’s The Boy and the Heron, the Red Sea festival is a showcase for new Arab cinema.
Here’s The Hollywood Reporter‘s pick of six new titles from across the region that expand the image of Arab movies, ranging from a jinn fantasy romance and a coming-of-age drama to an adventure thriller featuring a vengeance-seeking camel.
HWJN, opening film
A local Saudi Arabian movie will raise the curtain on the Red Sea Festival for the first time this year, screening it its Arab Spectacular section. Iraqi director Yasir Al Yasiri’s HWJN, described as a jinn fantasy romance, is set in modern-day Jeddah and adapted from the best-selling young adult fantasy novel by Ibraheem Abbas.
Combining Arabian folklore with modern themes, the film follows a kind-hearted jinn, portrayed by Baraa Alem, who goes on an epic journey to reclaim his birthright. Along the way, he meets young medical student Sawsan (Nour Alkhadra) and develops a romantic connection with her. Along the way, he must battle ancient evils “to maintain the harmonious balance between his world and ours,” according to a plot description.
“Opening the festival in its third edition with a Saudi film is a real testament to how far the cinema industry has come in such a short time,” says Red Sea Film Foundation CEO Mohammed Al-Turki. “As a Saudi filmmaker myself this is a transformative moment.”
The world premiere of director Tawfik Alzaidi’s Norah, the first production to be shot entirely in the AlUla region, is adding more local Saudi flavor to the festival.
The coming-of-age drama tells the story of Norah (Maria Bahrawi) a young, illiterate woman in a remote village whose life is changed after the arrival of new teacher, Nadar (Yagoub Alfarhan), who is also a painter. They mutually inspire each other, as Nadar opens Norah’s mind to the wider world outside of the village, and his new student inspires him and re-awakens his artistic talent and passion.
The filmmakers describe the movie as “a testimony to art as a liberation” and “a sensitive exploration of the relationship between creativity and what it means to be fully human.”
Black Light Six Feet Over, competition
The Algerian drama, from director Karim Bensalah, a graduate of the London Film School, stars Hamza Meziani as Sofiane, the son of a former Algerian diplomat now living as a student in Lyon.
But when he falls foul of the French bureaucracy and is threatened with deportation if he doesn’t get a job, Sofiane takes a temp position at a Muslim funeral home. The sudden confrontation with death and spirituality has a profound impact.
“Struggling with his identity and being uncomfortable in his own skin, spending time with the dead helps him find his way back into the light,” reads the film’s plot summary.
Naga, Arab Spectacular section
The Saudi movie from Telfaz11, which bowed at the Toronto International Film Festival, follows the “one wild night” concept in a plot involving Sarah (Adwa Bader), a young Saudi girl who sneaks out for a clandestine date that goes horribly wrong, sending her on a desperate adventure to get back home before curfew.
“What starts off as a quiet drive in the desert soon spirals into a hazy adventure involving an underground party, a broken-down car, and a vindictive camel,” reads the plot description. “Using a mix of wit and grit, [Sarah] must escape a series of bizarre situations and meet up with her father before the clock strikes 10 p.m.”
Meshal Aljaser directed. Yazeed Almajyul, Jubran Al Jubran and Amal Alharbi co-star.
Hajjan, Arab Spectacular section
More camels, though this time less vindictive, feature in Abu Bakr Shawky’s Hajjan, an adventure story set in the world of camel racing.
The film focuses on Matar, the youngest child of a Saudi family of camel jockeys. When his brother falls and is killed during a race, Matar is expected to give up his own racing dreams, sell his own camel, Hofara, for meat, and move back to his family in the city.
“Instead, he becomes a jockey himself,” reads the film’s plot description, “working for a ruthless racing baron until he and Hofara are forced to go on the run together, making a life-threatening journey through the desert in search of freedom and a better life.”
Shot largely in Tabuk on Saudi’s Red Sea coast, Hajjan stars Omar Al Atawi, Azzam Nemr, Abdulmohsen Alnemr, Shaimaa Al Tayeb, Ibrahim Alhasawi, and Mohamed Hilal.
Behind the Mountains, competition
Realism meets magic realism in this new feature from Tunisian director Mohamed Ben Attia (Hedi, Dear Son), a story of an outsider convinced he can fly.
Rafik (Majd Mastoura) is an otherwise normal-seeming man who is imprisoned after a moment of violent workplace rage. After four years of prison, he is eager to reconnect with his son Yassine (Walid Bouchhioua). In an attempt to prove he is worthy of being a father, he takes his son to the mountains where he will show him his secret: That he can fly.
“Can Rafik really fly? He thinks so,” says a plot summary. “His son wants to believe it – and this teasing, magical film may leave us wondering.”