Red Sea International Film Festival: Notes from A New Dawn, Film Companion

I love travelling and I love the movies, but I’d be lying if I said I ever imagined myself attending a film festival in Saudi Arabia during a global pandemic. In fact, I’d be lying if I said I imagined watching a single film in Saudi Arabia during my lifetime. For a country whose first cinema hall in 35 years only emerged in 2018, the inaugural Red Sea International Film Festival (RSIFF) in Jeddah is little less than a modern miracle. The setting is another statement altogether. Much of it is based in Jeddah’s UNESCO World Heritage Site old-town (Al Balad) on the eastern shore of the Red Sea – which is to say the future is being broadcast in the bylanes of history. 138 feature films and shorts from 67 countries have been programmed, including 27 films from a new wave of Saudi filmmakers. “Waves of Change” is also the official slogan: an assurance to the world that – following a weekend in which Saudi Arabia also hosted its inaugural Formula One race in Jeddah – a door is being opened after decades of cultural lockdown.

Those are the numbers. You can find them anywhere. But this is a moment. A real one. Most of us have grown up with a fair idea of what Saudi Arabia stands for. Breaking an age-old stereotype does not – and cannot – happen overnight, but it has to start somewhere. Sport and film cut across languages and traditions and biases, so the Jeddah Corniche circuit and Al Balad have automatically become emblematic of a new dawn: a desire to look forward instead of being stuck in the past. 

Red Sea International Film Festival
British actor Clive Owen at the Red Sea International Film Festival.

This desire is attractive to a South Asian writer like myself, especially in an era where some of the most definitive Indian documentaries of our time are perpetually in danger of being banned on their own soil. The recent decay of democracy and free speech in India gives me no moral high ground to scrutinize a Middle-Eastern culture in 2021, but the fact that our charts are moving in different directions – one upward, another downward – puts me in a unique position to experience this moment at a visceral level. It’s why I was bitterly disappointed when the Covid-19 pandemic indefinitely delayed RSIFF, which was originally slated to take place in March 2020. But I’m here now, somehow – a tiny breathing part of history in whatever capacity – and to say the starry opening night was a rollercoaster of emotions would be an understatement. 

I’ll be honest: Even as I boarded a flight during this Omicron surge, the thing I was most skeptical about was the “showiness” of a first film festival in a land prone to fabled extravagance. Of course, I was curious and excited too, but my apprehension stayed – the urge to make a splash to defy ages of repression is, after all, not an inexpensive one. In short, would the context overwhelm the meaning of cinema itself? The events were listed on opening night, one by one: Red Carpet, Premiere, Gala, Party, black-tie. An all-access ticket meant the actual title felt dwarfed by the applause around it. In a year of high-profile English-language musicals, Joe Wright’s Cyrano is by no means an obscure movie – though an admittedly odd “global” choice to open a festival strong on Arab and female representation. Based on the 1897 Edmond Rostand play, Cyrano de Bergerac, it stars Peter Dinklage and Haley Bennett. The grand premiere was listed to start at 8 PM at a gala hall that’s essentially a massive tent – like most other screening venues in the old town. The reporting time was 6.30 PM. 

Red Sea International Film Festival
French actress Catherine Deneuve at the Red Sea International Film Festival.

By the time I had entered to take my seat, I had already noticed Hollywood stars like Hillary Swank, Anthony Mackie and Clive Owen – in addition to iconic French actress Catherine Deneuve – on the red carpet. Exhaustions of a long two-leg journey started to set in as 8 PM came and went, with the start of the film nowhere in sight. I shifted in my seat to find a position that would best prevent me from nodding off. I also couldn’t shake off the feeling that maybe my fears were being realized: Important people made important speeches, all necessary no doubt, but half the hall emptied out to reach the party once the lights dimmed. The architects were rightly acknowledged, but the movie was beginning to feel like an afterthought in a sea of punctuation. 

But then Cyrano happened. Over the next two hours, I went from stifling innumerable yawns to sensing infinite goosebumps. That’s not to say it’s a terrific or path-breaking film – it’s probably not even the best musical of the year. But somewhere along the way, context married cinema – and the gravity of being present, at the physical intersection of the past and the future, took over my experience of the movie. Dinklage plays Cyrano, a character whose confidence is hit by his dwarfism, which in turn leads to him embracing words as a medium of hidden expression. He has long been in love with childhood friend Roxane (Bennett), who in turn falls for the dashing Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a man who innocently seeks Cyrano’s talent to impress her. She falls for his beautiful letters, unaware that it’s Cyrano’s soul posing as Christian’s body – a tale as old as time, repeated in many iterations of Hindi cinema as well (Mujhse Dosti Karoge, Kal Ho Naa Ho to name a few). 

As I watched, my near-delirious mind started to decode the familiarity of the premise in strange ways. First, it felt personal: Most of my relationships have started with words for precisely the same reason. The fear of being found out as an awkward, dry and even uninteresting presence has always driven me to sound thoughtful in my pieces. My profession, like Christian, is a surrogate for my faded personality. Secondly, the metaphor of filmmaking itself – of how the performer gets all the credit for expressing the words of a writer – never goes out of fashion, especially from a writer’s perspective. Roxane is the audience, torn between being a moviegoer and a cinephile, between the superficial and the intellectual. A scene subverting the famous Romeo And Juliet balcony gesture is wonderfully rendered in this film, with all three characters singing – and feeling – their hearts out. 

Most importantly, despite the conventional Joe-Wright-esque themes of triangles and wartime Europe, Cyrano is a love letter to art in the time of crisis. That it’s also a musical is a reminder of how humans are capable of defying their fundamental nature – and surprising themselves – at the slightest hint of true art. Cyrano’s words are that art in the film, but as the film barrelled towards a tragic end, it became obvious that there could be no better opening title for this seismic moment. It had to be Cyrano. Apart from being an ode to storytelling, my absolute surrender to Cyrano melted my inhibitions about Saudi Arabia’s first film festival. All the chaos receded into the background, the tension of risking a trip to a new country at a time of renewed uncertainty faded, and all that existed – again – was the screen in front of me. I had forgotten just how satisfying it can be. 

Cyrano just became an unwitting reminder of the truth that, for all the light that this festival hopes to symbolize, the resurgence begins inside a dark hall. The spectacle is Christian, well-meaning but a ruse reduced to his grand looks. But the ambition is Cyrano, sensitive and poetic and at an embryonic stage of identity. If change is the flashy body, cinema is the serene soul. After all, it’s only fitting that history is being written by the flowing fingers of film. 

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