Organisers say accusation Red Sea event is a ‘reputation laundering tool’ for Riyadh smacks of western hypocrisy
The director Guy Ritchie, centre left, and his wife, the actor Jacqui Ainsley, right, joins the festival’s CEO, Mohammed Al Turki, centre right, on opening night. Photograph: Tim P Whitby/Getty Images
A glitzy international film festival in Saudi Arabia has laid out the red carpet for a host of famed actors and directors, promising a “zero-censorship” event that will feature LGBTQ+ themes despite being held in a country where homosexuality is criminalised.
Only five years since the hardline Gulf monarchy lifted a decades-old ban on cinemas, the Red Sea international film festival launched 10 days of screenings on Thursday. Guests include the Lebanese actor and director Nadine Labaki, as well as fellow directors Guy Ritchie and the Oscar winner Spike Lee.
Now in its second year, the festival debuted in 2021 to accusations that the Saudi Arabian government was using culture to whitewash its poor human rights record.
Despite reforms of social laws including allowing women to drive, the country’s crown prince and de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, has overseen a surge in executions and crushed political dissent. He has also been widely condemned for directing Saudi Arabia’s intervention in the civil war in Yemen and, according to US intelligence, is likely to have ordered the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Michael Page, the deputy director of the Middle East and north Africa division at Human Rights Watch, accused the Saudi Arabian authorities of using “festivals as a reputation laundering tool, in the same way that they have used previous celebrity and sporting events to try to whitewash their quite terrible image”.
Mohammed Al Turki, a film producer and chief executive of the festival, said there was “a bit of western hypocrisy” when it came to criticism of holding a film festival in Saudi Arabia, adding that he was excited to host an event in his home country that would have been impossible just a few years ago.
Asked by the film industry news website Deadline Hollywood about LGBTQ+ rights, Turki said: “The festival has a zero censorship policy … I don’t think you can have an international film festival if you’re going to have censorship – that doesn’t go hand in hand.”
One of the films being screened, The Blue Caftan, is a story centring on a secretly gay Moroccan tailor who is forced to confront his sexuality when a male apprentice joins his workshop. The festival website credits the director, Maryam Touzani, for covering “a complex subject with sensitivity and courage, pointing the way to a society where tradition and tolerance can flourish together”.
Allowing such films at the festival creates a paradox where the Ritz Carlton hotel in Jeddah in effect becomes temporarily exempt from Saudi Arabia’s homophobic practices. Other guests include Luca Guadagnino, who directed the Oscar-winning Call Me By Your Name, a gay love story that would certainly never make it past the Saudi Arabian censors.
Kaleem Aftab, the director of international programming at the festival, has said there are no mandated government restrictions on the films he can select.
Speaking to the industry magazine Screen International, Aftab said: “Looking at Saudi Arabia as a monolithic whole is a huge mistake – it would be like me saying that everyone in England is a white British Brexiteer.
“Look at America today, with Roe v Wade being overturned. Things can go backwards and forwards. Every society has imperfections, every society deals with it.”
While the festival describes itself as independent, the organisation relies on state funds and sponsorship from government-linked companies, and is seen as a way for the kingdom to drive investment in its embryonic film and television industry.
This year, Riyadh announced a 40% cash rebate on film production, and alongside the screenings the festival will operate a conference to promote the sector, named the Red Sea Souk.
Organisers hope Middle Eastern and global south productions that might get overlooked and underpromoted at other international festivals will be given a chance to shine. Last year’s festival was attended by Haifaa al-Mansour, an award-winning female Saudi Arabian director, whose 2012 film Wadjda was the first feature film shot entirely in the Gulf country.
However, Dana Ahmed, a Middle East researcher at Amnesty International, said the festival must be seen within the context of authorities having “no tolerance for freedom of expression”.
She said: “It’s important to note in the midst of Saudi Arabia’s reformist drive that the authorities’ continued crackdown on freedom of expression means that everyone is at risk of decades in prison for their free speech.”