An Arab film fest in the time of Gaza war

For an orthodox country notorious for its human rights violations, Saudi Arabia had shut itself from cinema for 35 years (1983-2018).
Red Sea International Film Festival. (Photo | RSIFF website)
Red Sea International Film Festival. (Photo | RSIFF website)

It was a contentious film with which I opened my innings at the Red Sea International Film Festival (RSIFF) in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Journalist Halkawt Mustafa’s documentary Hiding Saddam Hussein is about an ordinary Iraqi farmer Alaa Namiq and his unique modus operandi to hole up the deposed president Saddam Hussein. He hides him in his Tikrit home for 235 days and shields him from 150,000 US troops, following America’s invasion of Iraq.

The film’s hybrid form weaves together archival footage, news clips and Namiq’s testimonies with dramatic re-enactments of crucial incidents. Made over a period of 12 years, in complete secrecy, the edge-of-the-seat thriller, sprinkled with small helpings of humour, Hiding Saddam Hussein shows the despot through the eyes of the farmer and ends up humanising both its key players. A simple host who wouldn’t betray the “world’s most wanted” even for the $25 million reward on his head, instead becomes his personal doctor, driver, hairdresser, bodyguard and chef—all rolled into one. The prized guest, shorn of power, forced to embrace his vulnerable self, mourning the death of his sons Uday and Qusay, develops a surrogate father-son bond with his host.

Ironically, for a Kurd whose family had to flee to Norway to save themselves from Hussein’s chemical weapons, Namiq wanted the Arab point of view to take centre stage in the film rather than the Western perspective with which the story of the invasion has largely been told down the years.

No wonder the film shows the US—its soldiers in particular—in an unflattering light. They are shown as violent trespassers than allies of the Iraqi people, at the receiving end of their resentment and derided as flaky enough to be fooled with offerings of “Pepsi and cookies”.

However, I was denied a Diet Coke at the post-film lunch by a local host. She and her friends triggered and agitated by the deaths in Gaza, particularly those of children and journalists, have been quietly boycotting all American brands. “I can’t go to Gaza and fight on behalf of the Palestinian kids, but I can stop spending on anything American. I feel that every penny that I spend on drinking a Coke or Pepsi will contribute to America’s support of Israel and killing of the innocents,” she explained her stand, also categorically saying that she wouldn’t attend any of the conversation series with Hollywood celebrities at the RSIFF.

Meanwhile, there were murmurs, even in the filmmaking fraternity participating at the festival, on whether it was an opportune moment to celebrate cinema when the war was at its ugly peak a mere 1,200 km away, leaving 18,000 Palestinians dead at the last count. Several film festivals in Arab nations—Egypt’s Cairo International Film Festival, Tunisia’s Carthage Film Days, and Doha’s Ajyal Film Festival—were called off in view of the escalating tension and solidarity with Palestine.

No reference was made to the conflict at the RSIFF, on the desolate red carpet and in the relatively muted opening ceremony attended by a handful of Bollywood and Hollywood celebrities such as Sharon Stone, Will Smith, Ranveer Singh and Johnny Depp. However, an earlier statement from Mohammed Al-Turki, CEO of the Red Sea Film Foundation, and RSIFF managing director Shivani Pandya Malhotra did obliquely underline the soft politics: “We feel it is particularly timely to use the medium of film to look at what connects us, and to give a platform to the voices and experiences of people in our region and beyond to foster insight, understanding and compassion.”

Even as the Hollywood presence (Chris Hemsworth, Nicolas Cage, Halle Berry, Andrew Garfield) kept growing—with some like Smith reported to have been paid $1 million for the appearance—and peaked at the closing ceremony, the festival’s theme—Your Story, Your Festival—made the programming predominantly Saudi, Arab and African. 

With culture, entertainment tourism and cinema as the “new oil”, aimed at diversifying the country’s economy, one of the festival’s aims has been to assist the growth of the nascent local and regional film ecosystem.

For an orthodox country notorious for its human rights violations, Saudi Arabia had shut itself from cinema for 35 years (1983-2018). However, within three years of hosting the country’s first film festival and market, the Red Sea Fund has come to be the force behind seven excellent films submitted to the international feature category at the Oscars this year—Kaouther Ben Hania’s Four Daughters (Tunisia), Mohamed Kordofani’s Goodbye Julia (Sudan), Ahmed Yassin Al Daradji’s Hanging Gardens (Iraq), Amjad Al Rasheed’s Inshallah A Boy (Jordan), Baloji’s Omen (Belgium), Amr Gmal’s The Burdened (Yemen) and Asmae El Moudir’s The Mother Of All Lies (Morocco).

In the middle of harping on the local content, wooing Hollywood was a matter of practicality, business exigency and profile-building. Just like Saudi Arabia itself has been a US ally and was on the way to mend its relations with Israel before the war came along. For Hollywood, in turn, it has been about dipping into Saudi money with rumours of a Saudi takeover of the Paramount Studio rife at the festival.

But away from all these contradictions, the RSIFF awards ceremony turned out to be as unambiguously political as it can possibly get in Saudi Arabia. With Australian filmmaker and jury chief Baz Luhrmann deciding to “shine a light” on one of the most popular films—British Palestinian filmmaker Farah Nabulsi’s The Teacher on the fraught lives of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. It won the jury award and the best actor trophy for the Arab icon Saleh Bakri whose portrayal of a committed Palestinian teacher reminded many viewers of the slain professor and author Refaat Alareer. While accepting the award on Bakri’s behalf, Nabulsi called for an end to the genocide. “Stop the killing of our brothers and sisters and children in Gaza,” she said, as the audience at Ritz Carlton roared in approval.

While accepting the jury award she quoted British philosopher, Bertrand Russell on Palestine: “How much longer is the world going to endure this spectacle of wanton cruelty?” Sitting in the audience, among many others, in a yellow Carolina Herrera gown, was actor Gwyneth Paltrow, one among the 300 Hollywood celebs supporting President Joe Biden on the ongoing conflict, urging him to “not rest until all hostages are released”. There couldn’t have been a better, ironic moment for the festival to say it’s a wrap.

Consulting Editor
Follow her on X @Namrata_Joshi

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