A Photographer's Diary: The Red Sea International Film Festival

World renowned photojournalist Ammar Abd Rabbo gives MIME readers a first person account into the inner workings of this year's inaugural event held in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
A Photographer's Diary: The Red Sea International Film Festival

On Sunday 5th December, I arrive in Jeddah, to cover the festival for FactStory, a production company linked to Agence France Presse or AFP, commissioned by the Red Sea Film Festival. I still can’t believe I am here. I walk on the red carpet of this new Festival, I am in Saudi Arabia!! Ready to cover the first edition of a Film Festival. Yes, I have to pinch myself a couple of times, the posters are here, the carpet, people getting ready... It is not a mirage, maybe a miracle, but in few hours, it is happening.

A thought on photos and film festivals

It has been a tradition for years, in some of the major film festivals like Cannes and Venice, photos and photographers are totally a "part” of the festival. The rhythm of the days is set by photos: photo calls, photo sessions, red carpets, etc. and you see everywhere in the city people carrying cameras and lighting and lots of badges. Many readers don't know but most of the photos they see throughout the year, in magazines, newspapers, websites, sometimes even on the horoscope pages, etc. come from film festivals, where the scenery, the lights, the make-up, the style, everything is set to be as close as possible to "perfect”, which allows a large production of photos that will be used later, long after the festivals are over. The "nicest” film festival for photographers is Cannes, where the whole event is designed around them, and every year new rules and regulations come to facilitate photographers' work, like banning selfies on the red carpet or getting people to automatically "drop” their legal rights on their image once they accept the ticket and walk the red carpet...

Monday 6th December

It’s “D-Day”! The opening ceremony, and the “moment of truth”... In the last couple of years, we heard a lot about this new festival, first scheduled for March 2020 and cancelled a couple of weeks before because of the pandemic and the lockdowns. Many people were doubtful or skeptical about the festival, a first of its kind in Saudi Arabia.

Some friends, actresses from Lebanon or Tunisia, send me text messages: “You’re the photographer, any idea on how we should dress?” I reply “no idea,” I feel like writing back “like any other film festival,” but what if they have to dress “modestly” in accordance with the idea we have of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia? Of course, the festival is held under the motto “Waves of Change” but how deep is the change?? What will be possible and what would be “inappropriate”? How about photos? Are the Saudis ready to see what a red carpet is really about? Top models and actresses presenting a kind of fashion show and displaying jewellery?

By 6:30 PM, I have all the answers! It’s quite a “normal” red carpet... Dresses come in all shapes and all colours, some are totally “sleeveless”, like French star Catherine Deneuve, who usually dresses modestly, but perhaps has been in a provocative mood in Jeddah.

Lots of Saudi names, some I know, like Haifaa al-Mansour, Ahd Kamel, and some which I discover... But also lots of international names, from Cannes’ Thierry Frémaux, to Clive Owen, Vincent Cassel, Hillary Swank, as well as top Egyptian, Tunisian actresses... and few international top models like Sara Sampaio, Alessandra Ambrosio, and former French First Lady Cécilia Attias (the former spouse of president Nicolas Sarkozy) - her current husband owns the event management company that arranged the facilities at Red Sea Film Festival.

From a photographer’s point of view, this is a successful and “rich” red carpet, which means a lot of work, with many photos to edit, but also means a lot of publications later on!

Tuesday 7th December

The “day after” is quiet. As I feared, I finished editing and captioning at 4 a.m.... So the “wake-up call” is a bit difficult, but it’s fine, as the photo calls and junkets scheduled in the morning have been delayed: the team for Hany Abu Assad’s movie Huda’s Salon has not arrived yet, so I have time to discover the streets of Al Balad, the Old Jeddah where the festival’s headquarters are located. It’s an amazing scenery of old houses, some of them literally falling apart, while others have been refreshed recently.

The whole area is a UNESCO World Heritage site, looks like a museum, though populated by “real” people, with small shops and art galleries. I am at a film festival, and this definitely looks like a set for a movie or a costumed series... This strange feeling is complete when you see old men sitting on the side, playing dominos or chatting... Are they for real? Or are they comedians, cast especially for the film week?

In the afternoon, Thierry Frémaux, AKA “Mister Cannes”, is presenting his film Lumière, about the first movies ever made. People are queuing outside the cinema, some are buying pop corn baskets, a group of school girls are all together, a quite “normal” movie theatre scene. When you know no theatres were allowed just a couple of years ago in Saudi... Frémaux presents his movie with his personal voiceover, talking and commenting, not the usual, track voiceover that the film typically has. It’s quite a moment, but I have to run out of the screening for the next red carpet.

Wednesday 8th December

The red carpet is busy with lots of kids!! It’s the premiere of Sing 2, the cartoon blockbuster. Lots of mothers attend with their kids, they’re here to watch the movie, but of course, they enjoy a lot the carpet and take selfies and lots of photos with the kids -- the brand new Jeddah walk of fame.

For a photographer it’s a bit surprising, as one would imagine these veiled women - wearing their “niqab” which only shows their eyes - would be sad or submissive. One would not expect them to be laughing and having fun and taking selfies on the red carpet, imitating the way of walking or talking to this or that actress they saw the day before.

At noon, I receive some of the first publications of the opening night, from two days ago, and some of my photos were published in Russia, Spain, France, Australia, and in the neighbouring countries like United Arab Emirates or Egypt. The curiosity is everywhere!

At evening time, the feeling of “novelty” is even bigger: the main movie, or “red carpet” gala is a movie made by five Saudi women directors! They walk the carpet together, some are veiled and some are wearing what they could wear on Cannes’ “Marches” or stairs: a designer’s asymmetric long red dress, revealing a shoulder, an arm, and part of the back! Just a few years ago, a magazine would be banned in this country or “censored” with black ink if showing these body parts.

Thursday 9th December

I spend part of the morning in the old city of Jeddah and realise how much these streets are attractive and photogenic.. While I am taking photos of four young Saudi filmmakers, a passerby stops to watch the photo session... It is Sofia Djama, the award winning Algerian director, who wants to pose with the young talents.

Crossed admiring looks, from the young students who look at Sofia, anotherArab, the already “senior” director, who has already accomplished both short and feature length movies, that have screened in Cannes and Venice and allover the planet. But also from the established director towards the young fresh graduates who have to fight their way in a yet conservative society.

Photographers, we like “landmarks,” which with time help “identify” the place, the city, the festival. Like the palm trees in Cannes, the water taxi boats in Venice... Here we have found one, almost without noticing - it’s an old blue door marked “7292”.

Behind it, the café and "social-cultural center” named “Bait Ziryab.” It’s perfectly located, at the entrance of the old city, near the Media Center, so we don’t have to go too far. In few days, some of the most famous celebrities will pose next to this door, and their photos will be everywhere. The old blue door might be, in due time, part of the visual identity of this new festival. I use it with Lebanese actor Fadi Abi Samra, then later with Jordanian writer and director Darin Sallam. It’s just perfect! And the first feedback from the talents themselves and later from media outlets that receive the photos are quite positive too.

The evening's red carpet is the movie Memory Box, by the Lebanese directors Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige. The real novelty in Jeddah is that the red carpet has two sides, the “official” side, where the photographers and all medias are positioned, and where the “talents” walk as they go to the screening. And then there is another side, that is, surprisingly, quite open to anyone... So plenty of people just pass by, they are all here, with their smartphones, waiting to see what is going on. For some of them, you understand from their comments, their questions that they have never been to a movie theatre before. It’s very interesting, not the type of reactions you might get at El Gouna in Egypt, or at any other festival!

Friday 10th December

On Friday, moving around Jeddah to arrive to the Festival headquarters is much easier as streets are empty, as this is the weekly day off. The other days, we spent a lot of time going from a place to another. Some friends and guests are unhappy with this, I have to remind them that we are in a “real” city and quite a large one: around six millions people live in Jeddah!! It’s not Cannes, where you can walk from one place to another, nor a resort as it used to be in Dubai where the Festival was held in the Madinat Jumeirah area, with hotels nearby as well as movie theatres, red carpet, receptions and parties, etc.

Talking about parties, of course, I wanted to attend some... Even when I have lots of work, every evening shooting red carpet photos, I want to check out at least one party! So I go to an art gallery where the Telfaz party is being held. An incredible scene: movie faces from all over the Arab world are here. From Syrians, to Palestinians, Tunisians, Egyptians, Lebanese, directors, actors, producers, they are all here, as well as lots of Saudis. All moving to the rhythms of the techno music played by a DJ with obvious international standards. The party is “dry” but some of the guests tell me to go with them later to another party that is more private and not dry, as it is on someone’s property. Unfortunately, it is quite late and I have to leave. Outside, another cinematic scene: a long queue of cars branded with the festival logo fill the quiet residential area as they wait for the partygoers at the end of the night.

Saturday 11th December

My first photo of the day is a cool one of Palestinian director Rachid Masharawi chilling in one of the cafés surrounding the festival. For photographers, these spontaneous moments are extremely precious. More and more talents, of course actors but also directors are surrounded by an army of publicists and advisors and it is almost impossible to get a picture of them “doing nothing”: they have to be posing, walking the red carpet, here or there, as indicated by their teams. So when you can snap a quick, nice photo of a director just enjoying their time, you just take it!

Later I go to the small house where junkets are held. On three floors, we can meet and do interviews and take photos with the teams of various movies presented at the festival. It’s a lot of time waiting and short, hurried moments with directors and actors, some of them are very young, like Ahmed Berrhouma, who acts in the Tunisian movie Ghodwa, one of the movies presented at the festival. A journalist asks me: “Is it that important for you to do portraits of this kid? Nobody really knows him and this might be his only role...” I reply: “Yes, maybe, but he might also have an incredible career, we have no idea yet... And if he does, then people will be very happy to see photos of his first participation when he was 10...” I always like to explain that those who took photos of Gerard Depardieu when he was just a young actor, totally unknown, could get them published for years and decades, but they had no idea this would happen when they actually took the pictures...

After the junkets, I go back to that favorite blue door where I am setting a small studio lighting for a photo with Tunisian actress and star Hend Sabry. She has only a few minutes before a masterclass she is doing in one of the theatres in Al Balad, the Old City. So this has to be quick. When she arrives in a golf cart, the whole street is filled with curious passers-by and many of her fans. I can see her surrounded by a forest of hands holding mobile phones... she is amazing in a Honayda (a successful Jeddah-based fashion brand) jumpsuit/jacket ensemble. I need the help of security to clear a bit the street and manage to shoot a few photos. Although it is a premiere, and neither Hend nor any of the festival’s guests are wearing “abayas” the traditional black or grey long gowns that hide the body - this seems to be now a quite “normal” scene in the heart of Jeddah.

Then I’m off to the “Souq”, or the Market, where different film projects are being awarded by the festival funding platform. Time to snap a photo of two members of the jury laughing together: Palestinian director and friend Annemarie Jacir (Wajib) and French director Ladj Ly (Les Misérables). Hundreds of thousands of dollars are given out in few minutes! The laureates scream, shout, come to the stage, deliver their thank you speech, I shoot a few photos. Someone tells me that a young Saudi just got funded with 100.000 US dollars for a project telling the story of a young girl who wants to become a photographer in her conservative town. Then he adds “you should be happy”!! I am, definitely! Is it because the project involves photography? Or because it’s a young female director? Or the positive energy of all these projects has rubbed off on me? Or just because I am happy being here, in Jeddah and part of the festival...

Sunday 12th December

Seventh day of the festival, and I have a kind of routine now: photo calls at press junkets in the morning, photo calls in the Old City streets in the afternoon, the “blue door”, and red carpets in the evening, one or two, depending on the day, then lots of time editing and captioning all the photos taken!

In the morning, I begin with the crew of You Resemble Me, a movie by Egyptian-American director Dina Amer and her cast, three siblings from the South of France, who are not very requested for interviews, so after I shoot their photos, they seem quite bored waiting for the director who goes from one interview to another. They kill the time on their phones. Just like me between photos...

In the afternoon, I meet another Tunisian actress, Amira Derouiche for a photo session in the Old City. After we do the classical blue door shot - I need to find a name for it - I ask her to go a bit further and sit amongst men on typical high wooden chairs where they seem to spend hours chatting. I always ask, fearing the men wouldn’t be too familiar (and maybe do not appreciate) an actress sitting in her bare feet amongst them, but to the contrary, they make space for her, and seem quite amused by the whole scene!

As I shoot the photos of Amira, I realise three or four photographers, among them two women, are also shooting her, around us using the nice setting. As soon as I am done, they are quite happy and proud to come and show her the photos they took on their cameras. They are really good! I wonder, where all these talents have been, knowing that people were not at ease with cameras in the streets, that there were no actresses and no actors to shoot, where were they or how miserable did they feel all these years?

Monday 13th December

It is the last day! Nothing to shoot before the closing ceremony. The last day of a festival means a large production of images: the red carpet is usually busier than all other days, all the movie teams are here, and some guests come just for the closing night. Among them, top model Naomi Campbell. A friend from Jeddah is angry: "What is she doing here?? This is a film festival, we should be celebrating directors and actors, not top models!!” She says. I tell her that festivals Red Carpets have became large fashion shows, used by jewellery and fashion brands to display their creation, and Cannes is the largest one, where photographers end up shooting Bella Hadid or Alessandra Ambrosio more than many actors or directors...

So for this closing night, they are handing out awards, which means I’ll need photos of the winners! Once the red carpet arrivals are over, I have to find a nice spot, only for the winners photos. As I have gone and checked the spot before, it is perfect. I have to stay there and wait for the media officers and the guest managers to bring the winners, right after the ceremony, to make sure their photo is taken. The whole exercise takes from 5 to 8:30 PM, not too late. What takes more time, much more time, is editing (choosing) the photos, getting the names and the right spelling for everyone, and sending them to media outlets...

I am tired, but I get it done fast in a way, so at midnight, it's all done! For all the festival people, thus begin their "baby blues”, or "post-festival blues”, that I personally experience after many festivals, as the routine of the event is over. For some of those working behind the scenes of the festival, they have been on this project for months and now, tonight, the word "The End” appears on the screen. They can go on with their lives, but for few days or few weeks there will be a kind of feeling of having left the vacuum...

Wednesday 15th December

The festival has been over, it ended two days ago... But the red carpet has not been removed yet, as there is a movie's world premiere, with Indian sport legends and top Bollywood stars coming to Jeddah! So the day begins at the Jeddah Private Aviation airport, where the stars are arriving. A huge private jet - actually the size of a commercial airplane - carries the "delegation”... Most importantly, the lead actor and actress, a real-life couple, Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh!! Together, these two have more than 90 millions followers on Instagram!! And together, they have dozens of suitcases and loads of people traveling with them: assistants, stylist, people in charge of the dresses, others in charge of the make-up, and those in charge of the suit-cases... I ask if all of this in just for one day in Jeddah, and someone replies: "No, they are going to Dubai tomorrow”... Oh, then if it's a two-day-trip it's different I guess.

Just a week earlier, when I was traveling with French president Emmanuel Macron, he was also on a two-day trip, also to Dubai and Jeddah... And I could bet he had less people traveling with him than these two actors!

The stars spend the afternoon resting and then giving interviews at press junkets. In the evening, when I go to the red carpet, I realise the "craziness”!! People are at their windows, others in the street, and the red carpet is packed. Everyone wants to see them and maybe grab a shot or a selfie with Ranveer! After all the limousine cars have arrived, he is not in any of them. Apparently, he asked to be dropped half a block away so he could walk with Deepika to the red carpet. When they finally arrive, he is accompanied by a man who follows him with a ghetto blaster that delivers "his” music, like a personal soundtrack. This is one more person I did not count at the airport! And for me, it's definitely a kind of world premiere never seen before on a red carpet!

It takes them a long time before they arrive to the theatre and finally present their movie, 83.

Jeddah can finally close these cinema days in a unique way, with a world premiere and a real popular success: all tickets were sold out as soon as this was announced and many people who were working at the festival were getting phone calls from friends they had not seen in years asking if they could find them a seat for the 83 premiere!

So, so long Jeddah!

All images by Ammar Abd Rabbo/Red Sea Film Festival, used with permission.

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