Awards, meeting of minds and Ithra magic: my final dispatch from the Saudi Film Festival

After all was said and done, some old MIME favorites like Nawaf Al Janahi's 'Somewhere in Time' and new discoveries like the Saudi entry to the 2023 Oscar race 'Raven Song' and the Ithra produced 'Valley Road' walked away with prizes at this year's SFF.
Awards, meeting of minds and Ithra magic: my final dispatch from the Saudi Film Festival

In the 2023 documentary Moon is the Oldest TV about Korean video artist Nam June Paik, he says candidly "if only the West knew about the East one tenth of what the East knows about the West, there wouldn't be any wars." It is a haunting reminder that most of the Western distrust of the Arab world stems from a complete lack of knowledge about it. Oftentimes, when I say to acquaintances, "I'm going to Saudi Arabia" there is a ghostly silence staring back at me, typically followed by an admission of ignorance on their part about the culture and beauty of the Kingdom.

I can't say I know even one tenth of what there is to know about KSA but my only excuse is that I love it already, without any need to learn more. The great learning experiences to come will simply enrich this passion I feel for the country, the culture and the people of Saudi. When I first came to KSA, in December of 2022 to attend the Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah, I wasn't prepared for the kind of hospitality I would receive, starting with a young woman in the queue at the airport, waiting to check in at the Saudia counter. "Are you going to Jeddah or are you transiting" she asked, to which I proudly answered "I'm going to Jeddah! It's my first time." He enthusiastic reply? "Welcome to Saudi, you will love it there." Another young woman, my seat companion on the flight inquired kindly about my transportation once I got to Jeddah. "The festival has a hospitality desk, I've been assured there will be a car waiting for me," I told her. "If you can't find your car, I have one parked, I'll drop you at your hotel," she assured me. And, mind you, our flight was due to land at 2 in the morning.

I don't think I've even felt so welcomed in my life.

The pre-opening reception, inside the SFF Production Market

The 9th Saudi Film Festival (SFF) and the staff on the ground at Ithra and surrounding the Film Commission, as well as the festival organization were no different. A true meeting of minds, and I was told before coming to the Eastern Province that people in Dammam and the surrounding area are very intellectual and educated. That was of course an understatement and the resulting conversations were so illuminating that I do feel I have finally learned one tenth more about KSA, thanks to the Saudi Film Festival.

But perhaps what is most astonishing is the inclusive vibe one gets in Saudi. As a non-Arab, who doesn't speak any Arabic beyond "yallah," "Inshallah' and 'halas" I always felt part of the conversation. As a woman, I feel respected and accepted, and again, part of the intellectual conversation, which is mostly devoid of mansplaining. And those few times things are explained to me as if I wouldn't understand anyway, it's not a Saudi doing the talking.

Now onto the festival itself.

The highlights of the 9th SFF were a Film Criticism Forum on National Cinema which is organized by the Saudi Film Commission, slated to travel around the country until late November of this year, when it will end in Riyadh. The Forum took place inside Ithra, the magnificent building that rises out of the desert like a magnificent vision and also houses all the red carpets and events for the Saudi Film Festival.

Also high on my list of wonderful encounters was a car ride with SFF 2023 honoree, Saudi producer Saleh Al-Fawzan who, in his elegant and soft-spoken English told me about Well number 7, the luckiest oil drill and considered the symbol of Aramco's success, which sits just besides the steely structure of the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra).

A walk through the Production Market of this year's SFF, yielded meetings with anyone from Tunisian producer extraordinaire Dora Bouchoucha, also part of the narrative jury for the festival's 9th edition, to Saudi actor, producer and writer Hisham Fageeh, to the team behind the Red Sea IFF. And festival founder Ahmed Al Mulla, who has guided this movement with his vision. Imagine thinking up a film festival when cinemas don't exist in your country and then pushing that forward through the years... That's a true visionary, or I'll use my favorite English word, in its best meaning -- an "iconoclast."

After all was said and done, the festival handed out awards and created memories that will last a lifetime, not just for the winning projects who can now breathe a little easier knowing there is definitely an audience for their work out there, but also for those of us who attended, cinema passion packed into our luggage. And a yearning to come back to Saudi, as soon as possible... Inshallah.

Here are the awards from the 9th Saudi Film Festival. But of course, all are winners in our book.

Golden Palm for Documentary GCC Film went to Long Distances by Ali Al Bimani and Hamad AlQasabi

Jabal Tuwaiq Award for the best film about a Saudi city went to Al Ardah by Faisal Al-Otaibi

Golden Palm for unique documentary subject went to Trucage by Ahmed Abu Zenada

Jury Golden Palm went to King of Journalism by Hassan Saeed

Golden Palm for Best Documentary went to Ramadan in a Day by Mujtaba Saeed

The documentary jury was made up of London-based Iraqi filmmaker Maysoon Pachachi, the president of the jury, along with Pakistani filmmaker and producer Sabiha Sumar and film director Abdulrahman Sandokji from Saudi Arabia.

Next it is the turn of the short films, awarded by a jury comprised of Hammadi Gueroum, the president of the jury, from Morocco, Karin Angela Schyle from Germany and Adhwa Fahad from KSA.

Golden Palm for Best Animated Film went to The Menace from Above by Mariam Khayat

Golden Palm for Best Short GCC Film went to Somewhere in Time by Nawaf Al Janahi

Golden Palm for Best Cinematography went to Antidote by Hassan Saeed

Abdullah Al Muhaisin Award for Best First Film went to Kabreet by Salma Murad

Golden Palm for Best Actress went to Fatimah Al-Sharif who acted in Zabarjad

And the Golden Palm for Best Actor went to Hakeem Jomah who acted in Don't Go Too Far

Jury Palm for Short Film went to Zabarjad by Hussain Al Mutlaq

Golden Palm for Best Short Film went to Antidote by Hassan Saeed

The Film Competition awards were handed out by a jury made up of Daniel Ziskind, jury president and a Paris-based producer, along with Dora Bouchoucha, the Tunisian maverick producer and Hisham Fageeh, a successful actor and filmmaker, star of Barakah Meets Barakah.

Golden Palm for Best Produced Script went to Abed by Mansour Assad

Golden Palm for Best Feature GCC Film was a tie, with both The Woodman by Koutaiba Al Janabi and The Last Postmen by Saad Alessamy voted as winners

Golden Palm for Best Sound Design went to That Abandoned Place by Gigi Hozimah

Golden Palm for Best Cinematography went to Raven Song by Mohamed Alsalman

Golden Palm for Best Actor went to Asim AlAuad for Raven Song

Golden Palm for Best Actress went to Aseel Omran for Valley Road

Golden Palm for Best Editing went to Abed by Mansour Assad

The Jury Golden Palm went to Raven Song by Mohamed Alsalman

And finally the Golden Palm for Best Feature Film went to Abed by Mansour Assad

For more information about the Saudi Film Festival, check out the Ithra website.

All photos courtesy of the organizers, used with permission.

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