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Red Sea Film Festival MD Shivani Pandya Talks Challenges Of Third Edition & Growing Footprint As Saudi Film Industry Blooms

Saudi Arabia‘s Red Sea International Film Festival is midway through its third edition, running November 30 to December 9 in the palatial surroundings of the seafront Ritz Carlton in the port city of Jeddah.

This year’s edition came together against the backdrop of the geopolitical tensions linked to the Israel-Hamas Conflict as well as the tail-end of the Actors’ Strike.

These challenges do not appear to have dented the line-up of films or the roster of local, regional and international guests making the trip to Jeddah. A-listers have also been hitting the red carpet with Johnny Depp, Will Smith, Zoe Saldana, Halle Berry, Chris Hemsworth and Gwyneth Paltrow among those putting in an appearance.

The edition is showcasing around 90 features, 20 shorts and four TV series hailing from more than 70 territories, ranging from big U.S. titles such as Ferrari and Origin to buzzy local films with international breakthrough potential such as Mandoob and Norah.

Deadline sat down with the RSIFF Managing Director Shivani Pandya as the festival hit its stride over the weekend.

DEADLINE: Was it tougher than usual to pull the festival together because of Actors’ Strike and geopolitical tensions around Israel- Hamas conflict ? A lot of elements like the closing film and In Conversation line-up were announced late in the day.

SHIVANI PANDYA: We feel every year is a challenge. Our first edition came together against the backdrop of the Covid pandemic. With the strike, we looked at a lot of films and there were films we had considered, but we weren’t getting any decisions. We were waiting for the strike to be over.

We’re happy it’s over but there were some the films we could have brought in, especially studio films where we had conversations but the timelines changed. That didn’t stop us from getting a really good selection. We’ve got a nice diversity with films from 77 countries. It also helps that we’re an international festival with a focus on Middle East, Asia and Africa.

DEADLINE: A handful of the big international titles – such as Maïwenn’s Jeanne du Barry and the closing film Ferrari were backed by the Red Sea Film Foundation. It is a caveat of this funding that the films must be made available for the festival?

PANDYA: Not at all. You can’t do that because it depends on the timing of the release and everything. We encourage people and I think most people are very happy to come back to the festival because we’ve supported them but it’s not contractually an obligation. We tell them we’d love to have the film and that’s about it.

DEADLINE: Beyond the Actors’ Strike, there have been rising geopolitical tensions in the backdrop due to the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas conflict, provoked by the latter’s terror attack on October 7. Did you get the impression people from outside the region were worried about travelling to Saudi Arabia this year?  Were there any dropouts?

PANDYA: Not really, you’ve seen all the people that have come out. We have a lot of Hollywood people. There were some people obviously who were not familiar with the situation and you know, geographically don’t know where things sit, but most people were OK. You’ve seen that on the red carpet. There’s a strong line-up of people. The juries are great. We’ve got people coming through for different In Conversations [such as Will Smith, Baz Luhrmann and Chris Hemsworth].

I think over the last two years, people have come to know the festival. They are intrigued and really want to support the filmmakers. They’ve also heard about the box office figures that are emerging from here and the potential the market, so there’s been a fair amount of interest and that’s why people are looking at it and our happy to come down.

DEADLINE: Going back to the fallout from the Israel-Hamas conflict, some industry professionals have suggested that festivals in the MENA region should be showing more support for Palestinian filmmakers. What the Red Sea’s take on the conflict?

PANDYA: The Arab world is important to us and that’s what we’ve been supporting with Asia and Africa. We’re very clear that we are a cultural event. Our objectives are to push filmmakers and support the industry.

We’ve got very clear objectives in terms of what we’re trying to do and what we’re trying to achieve. We want to continue to help filmmakers to share their stories. That’s also a big part of it creating a cultural bridge in the world. It’s important that these creative people are able to tell their stories and that’s why we wanted to continue the festival as it is.

DEADLINE: There was never any question of the festival stopping?

PANDYA: No. We also spoke to filmmakers. A lot of them said, ‘Please don’t, please don’t’, especially after lot of the other festivals made a different decision.

DEADLINE: The festival opened for the first time with an Arabic language film, the Saudi Arabian fantasy HWJN. What was the thinking behind opening with a local film, rather than a big English international title as was the case with the first two editions?

PANDYA: We’ve got a large number of Saudi films this year. We felt in this third year we had a really good opportunity to show a well-produced and well-made film and that’s why HWJN was looked at that. We also have Saudi two films in competition [Norah and Mandoob] and other titles dotted about the selection.

DEADLINE: How do think the festival has developed since its first edition since 2021. Are you pleased with what you’ve achieved?

PANDYA: We’ve just been tweaking, adding to the structure we put up and there has been no major shift but it’s grown and evolved. The industry in Saudi is also growing and evolving. You’re getting new studios, new announcements and deals being done.

For the festival, it’s also grown in terms of interest levels. We had 30% more accreditations this year and more and more people are also coming down under their own steam.

DEADLINE: The Ritz Carlton is the main hub of the festival for the second year running. The long-term goal is for the festival to be based out of the new Red Sea Film Foundation HQ which is currently being built in Jeddah’s Old Town – or El Balad. Will it be ready for next year?

PANDYA: It’s under construction. We actually went and took a look at it last week. The hope is that it will be ready for next year.

DEADLINE: How big is it? Is it as big as the Palais des Festivals in Cannes.

PANDYA: No, sadly not. It’s a cultural centre with auditoriums, theatres and spaces for the industry to mix. The idea is to do things the across the year as well as during the festival.

DEADLINE: So will everything be based at the new HQ once it’s up and running? Will it be big enough to accommodate the festival and market, given the pace at which both events are growing?

PANDYA: That’s a very good question. It’s something we’ll be figuring out.

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