Edouard Waintrop has taken over from Saudi director Mahmoud Sabbagh as the artistic director of the first Red Sea International Film Festival (RSIFF), due to take place November 11 to 20 in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia.
Sabbagh stepped down in July 2020 after the planned first edition in spring 2020 was cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Waintrop oversaw seven editions of Cannes parallel section Directors’ Fortnight from 2011 to 2018, having previously spent five years running Switzerland’s International Film Festival of Fribourg, which is known for the diversity of its selection and focus on Asia, African and Latin America. Prior to that, he was a film and jazz critic at the French newspaper Libération for 26 years.
In his first interview in his new role, Waintrop talks about the line he intends to take on censorship issues, his friends’ reaction to working with Saudi Arabia given its controversial record on human rights and why he has brought more women into the programming team.
What convinced you to take the position?
It’s a combination of factors. I knew [RSIFF managing director] Shivani Pandya although I had never worked with her. Aside from Shivani, there’s a high proportion of women in the team. There is Zain Zedan who runs the market and Jumana Zahid who heads up the Red Sea Lodge. I felt there weren’t enough women in the programming team and I’ve tried to adjust that by getting them to hire another woman, Faisa Ambah. She is from Jeddah but has also lived in the US and France, so has an international view as well as a local one.
In a country that is one of the most retrograde in the world in terms of women, this was an important factor for me. I want to work with these women and hear what they have to say because they clearly know more about the country than me.
Do you think it will be a challenge to get people from outside the Middle East and North Africa region to attend?
It’s something I know will be complicated. I’ve already seen it in the reactions of my friends. Nobody has forgotten the news of two years ago, or a year ago. I won’t reproach people if they don’t want to come but I’ll be sad. I think it’s more interesting to try to engage with the country in its complexity rather than dismiss it completely out of hand. I feel if you open the door, you need to step inside.
Have you visited Saudi Arabia or Jeddah yet?
I’m hoping to get there before Cannes. I know who I want to meet: the people who made cinema exist even when it was officially banned, who continued to make films and get them seen as best they could. I really want to meet them to talk and hear their ideas.
What are your biggest challenges right now?
The conditions are the complete opposite of my previous role where we selected 20 films a year, everyone was fighting to get in and nobody was asking political questions. We’re creating an international film festival from scratch in a country where cinema was banned for 35 years. When I say ‘from scratch’, it’s not exactly from scratch because there was a previous first edition that didn’t happen but most of the team is now different, especially in the programming department.
How is the selection process going?
It’s a great year to be selecting Arab films. I’ve already seen some very strong films. What’s also striking is the diversity of genres from comedies, to thrillers and some crazy films, all done really well. This has left me feeling even more enthusiastic about creating a festival in a country where there hasn’t been cinema for more than 30 years.
How worried are you about potential censorship issues around politically or culturally sensitive topics?
I think we will have lighter censorship than is the case in the rest of the country right now as cinemas start to open. My ambition is to show amazing Arab cinema over a wide range of subjects and genres, whether it is about the situation for women, or love, tenderness, or life as a couple, which in itself can also be a political topic.
I will be intransigent on Arab cinema in the sense that we must be able to show everything that we see and like. On other points, there can be some compromise but not too much as it’s an international film festival and it needs to follow the rules of international film festivals.
Do you have ideas for the opening film? Are you looking for a big international blockbuster-style title, or something more arthouse?
Those are two approaches that we are mulling. Or perhaps we’ll have two openings, one aimed at the larger public and another with a more independent, arthouse-style Arab film.
The Middle East film festival calendar is looking crowded this autumn, with El Gouna, Red Sea and Cairo running in quick succession from October to early December. What will your policy be in terms of securing MENA premieres?
We’re aiming to get as many MENA premieres as possible but if there is an extraordinary film that we feel we must show that has played elsewhere, we could invite it and simply won’t show it in competition.
When do you hope to wrap up the selection?
In September after Cannes and Venice. Of course, there will be fine tuning up to the last minute. One thing that is important for us is that people come to present their films,so there will be a link between the film’s selection and the presence of the director.
You were credited for introducing more genre titles to the mix at Cannes Directors’ Fortnight. The Arab world has a growing genre scene too. Is this something you might focus on?
We can’t really go faster than the wind. When I was at Directors’ Fortnight, we were selecting at a world level. It’s still early days for genre in the Arab world and I don’t feel it would work yet. I’d rather focus on the diversity of what is being made. I’ve recently seen two amazing comedies, for example, a type of film that didn’t really exist in the region and is really well done.
How worried are you that the pandemic could put the festival on hold for a second time next November?
We don’t know whether we will be able to run a full capacity or with limits but the return of spectators for Champions’ League final in Porto recently, even if the permitted number of spectators was well below the stadium’s full capacity, gave me hope.
What will you be doing in Cannes in July?
I should be going to Cannes as there is supposed to be Saudi pavilion this year. We’ll come with part of the festival team, notably the programmers. I’ll arrive the second day and think I’ll stay to the end. It will an important trip because there will be lots of people asking the same questions as you.