The glamour quotient was full on at the opening of the second edition of the Red Sea Film Festival Thursday night, 1 December. It wasn’t just the venue, at Jeddah’s glitzy Ritz Carlton, where massive sparkling chandeliers, spumante-colored ceilings and plush pile carpets vied with the spangles, beads and sequins cascading from many a soft shoulder. No, the glamour came more properly from some mega-watt stars whose presence certainly boosted the festival’s international profile. Absent were some of the more cringe-worthy gaffes of last year, such as the misspelling of honoree Catherine Deneuve’s name on screen: this was a much more choreographed event, and while the value of an opening dance number designed as a tribute to cinema itself can be questioned, the evening, which ended with a high-octane Bruno Mars concert in the garden behind the hotel, can be considered a success.
This was by no means guaranteed given the chaotic handling of the red carpet, with guests forced to wait nearly an hour at one end of the hotel for cars to bring them, at a snail’s pace, the 200 meters to the other end, where the crush continued and tempers were frayed. Once inside however, apart from poor acoustics, the proceedings were much more in control, smoothly co-hosted by Lebanese presenter Raya Abirached and Moe Eslam. Of course there was the usual talk of cinema as the great bridge-builder, and mention of the exceptional place the booming Saudi film industry has taken on the regional and international cinema landscape.
But what the true highlight of the evening came from two of the Gold Yusr Honorary Awards: Shah Rukh Khan and Yousra.
Khan’s status as the king of Bollywood is undisputed: it’s difficult to think of any other actor today whose globe-spanning screen presence generates such a potent fan base. Before he was called to speak, the camera caught a lovely moment when Sharon Stone suddenly realized Khan was in her row and her face lit up: it’s exceedingly rare for an American star to even be aware of non-Hollywood royalty, yet such is Khan’s affect (and Stone’s genuine engagement with the world, also reflected in her choice of dress, designed by Bahraini label Monsoori). But it came as a great surprise to hear him say on stage that this was “the first time anyone has honored me or taken me seriously at a film festival.” How can that be? Soberly dressed in all black, the star gave a heart-warming shoutout to fellow Award winner Yousra, underscoring the international film community’s recognition of each other’s work and proving once again that Khan remains a rare gentleman even at the summit of his career.
Yousra, exuding radiance in a dazzling gold Zuhair Murad gown, was next on stage, visibly moved by the tribute and humble in her thanks. Like Khan, her celebrity is exceptional in its generosity and the palpable love exchanged between the star and her fans starting already in the late 1970s, and this symbiotic affection remains undimmed. Other notable attendees for the opening included Nadine Labaki (also dressed in Murad), Luca Guadagnino, Priyanka Chopra, the eternally elegant Leblebla and third Gold Yusr winner Guy Ritchie.
The opening film, Shekhar Kapur’s arranged marriage romantic comedy What’s Love Got to Do With It? co-written by Jemima Khan, was a far more suitable festival kick-off than last year’s rather curious choice of Joe Wright’s Cyrano. The opening party was also a significant step up, thanks immeasurably to the boisterous performance by Bruno Mars. Unlike last year, the festival is not using Jeddah’s historic center, al-Balad, which continues to undergo restoration, but a return has been promised for 2023. It will be a wise move, given how the liveliness of the winding streets packed with local families enjoying the street music and food, added immeasurably to the atmosphere and made it feel very much a part of the city.
All photos by Getty Images, courtesy of Red Sea IFF, used with permission.