If you build it, they will come: The Saudi Film Festival kicks off its 9th edition

Quiet and steady, the event has been going on since 2008, sometimes regrouping to come back stronger and better, and the 9th edition of SFF is proof that cinema in Saudi Arabia is here to stay.
If you build it, they will come: The Saudi Film Festival kicks off its 9th edition

When the Saudi Film Festival first started in 2008, it was called Saudi Film Competition, and it lasted five days. For our interview in Screen International, festival founder Ahmed Al Mulla admitted that the first day of the festival then coincided with the laying of the first stone of ITHRA, the impressive building which houses the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture in Dammam, KSA. It doesn't surprise me, as ITHRA is an integral part now of the Saudi Film Festival and the opening ceremony was hosted inside it, with a red carpet bridging the balmy Dammam night outside with the chilly but necessary a/c air inside the magnificent architectural feat, which could remind cinema lovers of Denis Villeneuve's Arrival.

It is otherworldly to experience this festival, here in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, facing the Arabian Gulf to the east, and rising out of the desert, which is ever present and all around us, making its sandy presence known even on the ride into town from the airport.

Cinema in Saudi has overtaken the conversations between any self respecting Arab cinema lovers. When history books will be written about this period of time, I bet you HRH Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud will be known, and rightfully so, as an "emperor" of change and a visionary of forward thinking and not, as the Western media would like to paint him, as a villainous threat. Perhaps this need to put down Saudi Arabia, and anyone who wants to build up the rightful pride of its people, arises out of the fact that the Kingdom was never colonized by the English, the French, the Portuguese and their cronies but remained a pillar of dignity in the Region and the world at large. A Saudi insider told me as much and I believe him because it makes sense, in this era when the old American saying "everyone loves a winner" no longer holds true and in fact, most can agree to hate those who build solid foundations and improve themselves.

But enough of the glowing commentary and back to the festival. The 9th edition kicked off with an opening ceremony that presented lifetime achievement awards to two Gulf personalities, saw the who's who of Arab cinema meet up for pre-show reception and an afterparty dinner by the sea, and in between, screened a short animated film that I'd gladly watch again. And again.

The evening was hosted by the statuesque Saudi actress Fay Fouad and Saudi actor, writer and producer Baraa Alem who sparred and joked but also got down to business in introducing the awards categories and prizes which will be handed out at the end of this edition of SFF. What was handed out during the opening ceremony were the awards to honor Saudi filmmaker and producer Saleh Al-Fawzan and Bahraini writer and screenwriter Amin Saleh.

Finally, the festival did something extraordinary in screening their opening film, by choosing Afnan Bawyan's Saleeg, a stunning feat of animation featuring the tale of a grandmother's recipe which ends up taking over her life, quite literally. The film is a quick 9 minutes long, which brought the evening to a close and allowed the lucky attendees to get back to the balmy evening air and, after a short minibus ride, find themselves feasting on mini shawarmas, warm and cold delicacies as well as a dessert table that even included a chocolate fountain.

For more information, check out the Saudi Film Festival section on the ITHRA website.

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