The first edition of the Red Sea Film Festival, to run at Jeddah in Saudi Arabia from December 6, will honour two women directors – Haifaa Al-Mansour and Laila Eloui. Incredible as it may sound, Haifaa was the first ever woman helmer from Saudi Arabia to shoot her first feature, Wadjda – and inside her country, which opened its cinema only in 2018, after about 30 years. (Today, there are dozens of theatres in Saudi Arabia) So, the first Saudi woman director being feted by the first edition of the Festival!
Wadjda, which premiered at Venice in 2012, is a fascinating work about a little girl’s steely determination to get a bicycle for herself so that she may race the neighbourhood boy. I remember Haifaa telling me during an interview at Venice how difficult it was for her to make her movie. She had to stay inside her van and give instructions to the male crew and actors over a loudspeaker.
Of course, that is now a closed chapter with Saudi women allowed to even drive.
Like her first film Wadjda, her latest work The Perfect Candidate (2019) is also about defiance, this time it is a young doctor. She is bent on furthering her career, but when things do not go her way after a missed opportunity to fly to Dubai for a medical conference, she decides to contest the local municipal election. She feels she could at least get the broken road to her clinic repaved — helping those who travel there, especially in emergencies. Earlier, a clear display of her grit is visible when she coaxes an elderly man into letting her treat him.
The other woman director to be celebrated is Egyptian actress Laila, who has acted in more than 70 films. I do not remember seeing her on screen, but according to the Festival, she continues to captivate, entertain and inspire audiences and actors alike. She is undoubtedly one of the most talented and respected stars in the Arab world, best known for her roles in I Love Cinema and Girl’s Love. She has received many Egyptian and global awards at festivals. Laila will also be giving a masterclass.
The Festival ends on December 15.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is author, commentator and movie critic, who has been covering festivals, including Cannes and Venice for three decades)
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