Olive Stone voiced support for Saudi Arabia at the opening Thursday of the second edition of country’s Red Sea International Film Festival, which he is attending as president of the international jury.
The Oscar-winning director said Saudi Arabia was a country that is “misunderstood in the present world.”
“You see the changes that are coming here, the reforms. I think people who judge too harshly should come and visit this place and see for themselves,” he told the opening ceremony to cheers and applause.
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Running December 1-10 in the port city of Jeddah, the Red Sea festival unfolds five years to the week that news first broke that Saudi Arabia was lifting its 35-year cinema ban as part of sweeping reforms to open up its society and the economy.
The reforms have been broadly welcomed by the international community but questions continue to swirl around the country’s human rights record.
Shekhar Kapur’s cross-cultural romance What’s Love Got to Do with It? opened the festival with Kapur; writer and producer Jemima Khan; actors Shabana Azmi, Sajal Ali and Jeff Mirza; and DJ and music producer Naughty Boy in attendance.
Executive producers Studiocanal’s Ron Halpern and Working Title’s Lucas Webb also made the trip to Jeddah for the screening.
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The choice of What’s Love Got To Do With It? as the opening film was a daring one on many levels for its exploration of questions around religion, tradition, arranged marriage and family bonds, given the predominantly devout Muslim audience.
The opening ceremony also saw career awards handed out to Guy Richie, iconic Egyptian actress Yousra and Bollywood mega-star Shah Rukh Khan, who stopped by Deadline’s Red Sea Studio en route to the red carpet.
After the ceremony, Khan headed to a public open-air beachfront screening of Aditya Chopra’s 1995 hit Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ), where he was met by jubilant crowds of local fans.
The festival is unfolding in Jeddah’s grandiose seafront Ritz-Carlton hotel, while permanent headquarters are built in the city’s more characterful Al-Balad quarter which was its setting last year.
This made for a more muted red carpet without any crowds but it still packed in the star power with a surprise appearance by Sharon Stone alongside the likes of Michelle Rodriguez, Freida Pinto, Rossy de Palma, Andy Garcia and AR Rahman.
They mingled with Saudi stars such as Haifaa Al Mansour, Sohayb Godus, Fatima Al-Banawi and Hisham Fageeh and regional talents including George Khabbaz, Tara Emad and Soudade Kaadane.
U.S. pop star Bruno Mars and his band performed a high-energy set at the post-screening party. Mars is on a whirlwind Gulf tour, with dates in Bahrain and the SoundStorm music festival in the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh.
The festival’s second edition programmed by Antoine Khalife (Arab cinema) and Kaleem Aftab (international), will screen 131 feature films and shorts from 61 countries.
The main competition will showcase 15 films by Arab, African and Asian directors, while the red-carpet program features a raft of festival hits including Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin, Park Chan-Wook’s Decision to Leave, Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light, and Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness.
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Alongside the screenings, the festival has also lined up a star-studded In-Conversations program featuring Oscar winners Spike Lee and Jackie Chan, Oscar-nominees Andy Garcia and Luca Guadagnino as well as actors Akshay Kumar, Nelly Karim, Ranbir Kapoor, and Hrithik Roshan and actress-director Nadine Labaki.