Saudi Film Festival

Source: Courtesy of Ithra

Opening night of Saudi Film Festival 2024 in the Ithra theatre

The origins of the Saudi Film Festival (SFF) began on a rooftop in 2005, with a screening of Ron Frickle’s documentary Baraka, as part of a weekly literary club in the eastern Saudi province of Dammam.

Nearly two decades on and SFF is celebrating its 10th edition, taking place from May 2-9 at the iconic King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra), in Dhahran, also in the country’s eastern province.

This year’s festival will see more than 53 titles competing for 36 awards across three categories: the main film competition, the unproduced screenplay competition and the production market projects competition.

Leading international names will sit on the juries: Dora Bouchoucha, the Tunisian producer of films including Hedi and Satin Rouge, leads the Production Market Projects Jury; Heidi Zardi, the head of Marrakech’s Atlas Workshops and founder of Paris-based sales company Luxbox, Ethiopian producer/director Haile Gerima (Sankofa) and Saudi filmmaker and TV creator Hanaa Alfasi (Lollipop) are on the Feature Film Competition jury.

“The Saudi Film Festival (SFF) has garnered a reputation for championing Saudi cinematic talent,” says Mansour Al-Badran, vice president of SFF and cinema coordinator at Ithra. “While primarily focused on local filmmakers, the festival has also previously spotlighted rising talents from the wider GCC region.”

SFF is organised by the Saudi Cinema Association in partnership with Ithra and supported by the Saudi Film Commission.

This year’s edition is hosting spotlights on sci-fi films and Indian cinema. It is honoring beloved Saudi actor Abdul Mohsen Al-Nimr, whose work includes the 2014 Ali F. Mostafa film From A to B and by A.B. Shawky’s camel epic Hajjan, produced by Ithra’s filmmaking arm, Ithra Film Production (IFP), that world premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.

Most recently Hajjan, produced by Ithra Film Production, garnered three awards, best feature, best actor for Omar Alatawi for his role as protagonist Matar,  and best cinematography at the Gulf Cinema Festival, a full sweep across all categories the film was nominated in, all announced at the festival’s closing ceremony on April 18.

Further films confirmed include Within Sand by Saudi director Mohammed Alatawi, which launched at Red Sea International Film Festival in 2022, the Emirati feature Three by Dubai-based filmmaker Nayla Al Khaja and Fever Dream by another notable rising Saudi director, Faris Godus.

The production market will showcase projects including the anticipated Do Re Mimi from Saudi actor-turned -filmmaker Fatima Al Banawi, who made her directorial debut with Basma in 2020.

There will also be several workshops taking place during the festival, including one on project pitching with French-Lebanese filmmaker Michel Kammon (Falafel, Beirut Hold’em) and a session on legally retaining IP with Bahraini filmmaker and attorney Mohamed Rashed Buali.

The festival offers a chance for film directors from Saudi and the Gulf countries to mingle with producers, programmers and festival directors from the region and the international industry in the large market hall.

Last year’s event saw over 38,000 visitors visiting Ithra during the festival, while SFF hosted around 500 guests, from Arab celebrities to international journalists. Honorary awards were handed out to Bahraini critic and filmmaker Amin Saleh and Saudi filmmaker Saleh Al-Fawzan who worked as a producer of Egyptian cinema in the 1980s and 1990s.

SFF was originally called the Saudi Film Competition. The opening of Ithra in 2008 helped to grow what would become SFF. Poet Ahmed Almulla, in charge of the cultural activities of the literary society, explored creating a weekly film night, screening permitted documentaries.

Since 2015, SFF has taken place in the grounds of Ithra. (Two editions 2008 and 2014 were held elsewhere and the festival was on hiatus from 2008 to 2014.)

“Ithra’s longstanding partnership with the Cinema Association positions us as an integral part of the SFF,” says Al-Badran. “We leverage our vast experience in cultural initiatives – operations, media, communication, and artistic direction – to contribute to the festival’s continued success.”