‘Saudi Arabia will be a major player in the future of film,’ Mohammed Al-Turki says as Cannes kicks off

‘Saudi Arabia will be a major player in the future of film,’ Mohammed Al-Turki says as Cannes kicks off
Mohammed Al-Turki is the CEO of Saudi Arabia's Red Sea Film Foundation. (Getty Images)
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Updated 18 May 2023

‘Saudi Arabia will be a major player in the future of film,’ Mohammed Al-Turki says as Cannes kicks off

‘Saudi Arabia will be a major player in the future of film,’ Mohammed Al-Turki says as Cannes kicks off
  • With the Cannes Film Festival set to begin on Tuesday night, the Red Sea Film Foundation CEO discusses the Kingdom’s involvement in cinema’s biggest event and the progress made by the Saudi film industry

DUBAI: In the world of cinema, there is no event that comes close to eclipsing the Cannes Film Festival. Each May, luminaries from every corner of the globe unite in the South of France to both celebrate industry titans at the peak of their powers, and, more importantly, select from the fray the key voices that will shape the future of the artform. Now, with the help of Mohammed Al-Turki, film producer and CEO of the Red Sea Film Foundation, Saudi Arabia will play a key role in that future.  

Since taking over the role just over a year ago, Al-Turki has become a global ambassador for Saudi and Arab film alike, working to not only elevate the stature of the country’s own premiere festival held in Jeddah each year, but also to help lift rising regional talent to new heights. At Cannes this year, the Red Sea Fund, part of the Red Sea Film Foundation, has supported five films in competition, as well as the festival’s opener, “Jeanne Du Barry,” starring Johnny Depp. 

“Cannes Film Festival is the definitive stage for global film, the jewel in the crown of the festival calendar, and through our partnership we are able to elevate the talent and films that we support on an unparalleled level,” Al-Turki tells Arab News. 

“It’s a meeting point for cinema internationally, so we can build connections across the globe. Cinema is also a major export, and for that you need an international market — through which we have been championing Arab, African and Indian voices.” 

Much has changed for Al-Turki since the last time we spoke in 2021. Back then, he was turning his attention to production in Saudi Arabia after a decade of producing Hollywood films starring top names such as Richard Gere, Gary Oldman and Andrew Garfield. He hoped, project by project, that he could shine a spotlight on some of those in the Kingdom who had long been ignored. Now, with the might of the foundation behind him, he has the power to do so much more, which has left him keenly aware of just how much there is still to do.    

“This position has made me realize more fully the challenges that exist and the barriers there still are for people outside the Hollywood system,” says Al-Turki. “But, thankfully, there is talent and tenacity enough for these creatives to thrive.” 

Part of overcoming those barriers, of course, is not just funding projects from experienced talent — it’s identifying and developing talent at the nascent stage their careers in all aspects of filmmaking. This year, Red Sea Labs and the Red Sea Film Foundation are partnering with the Cannes Marché du Film to establish the inaugural Cannes Makers program, a talent-development program. Three young professionals from Saudi Arabia will be taking part: Shahad Abonomai, Raghad Bajbaa, and Marwan Elshafie. 

“We want to support people who have drive and vision and just need to be given the opportunity to get more of a foothold in the industry, and we saw so much potential in these three,” says Al-Turki proudly.  

Al-Turki has also found himself much more collaborative than before, discovering that a leader is only as good as those he surrounds himself with.  

“I recognize that it’s a very collective effort, first and foremost. I am so grateful to be able to be the public face of this movement to enrich the ecosystem of Saudi filmmaking, and give Arab cinema a space on the global stage, but it is something which really takes a village and we have an incredible team, network of partners, and most importantly a burgeoning cohort of creative talent to uplift and support,” says Al-Turki.  

The progress that his team — and Saudi Arabia’s film industry as a whole — have made is nothing short of astounding so far. “We have so much to offer and have achieved so much for such a young industry,” he says. “It’s incredible to look back at the progress: Red Sea International Film Festival is heading towards our third edition and already we are a real player in the global industry calendar.”  

A festival, one might say, is only as good as the films it champions. To have its fund support two films — Kaouther Ben Hania’s “Four Daughters” and Ramata-Toulaye Sy’s “Banel & Adama” — in competition for the Palme d’Or, the festival’s top prize, as well as another which marks an historic debut for Sudanese cinema at the festival, is a badge of honor for both the foundation and Al-Turki himself.  

“Being a part of these watershed moments is very humbling and gives me great hope for the future of cinema from our region,” says Al-Turki.  

But this is only the beginning. Both the foundation and the Saudi film industry as a whole are only a few years old, but the Kingdom is well on the way to becoming the main center for Arab and regional film.  

“I see Saudi Arabia as a major player in the future of film in the region, definitely — not least because of the work we are doing with the Red Sea Film Foundation. It’s also an incredible filming destination, and home to so much burgeoning talent,” says Al-Turki.  

Al-Turki himself is continuing to produce films — he’s executive producer of the upcoming Michael Mann film “Ferrari,” starring Adam Driver — but when he thinks of his own legacy, it’s Saudi Arabia that he’s most focused on. It’s his home, the place where he once fell in love with film, just a boy from AlKhobar in the Kingdom’s Eastern Province. 

Al-Turki recalls that he once amassed such a large collection of movies that he would rent out his VHS and LaserDisc collection to other students from the parking lot in AlKhobar. Why? Because he wanted to share his greatest passion; to pass on the same joy he’d found in each worn copy. It’s that same impulse that’s guiding him today, only he’s not just sharing the magic of movies, he’s helping create it on a mass scale.  

“I want to have made a tangible impact in placing Saudi Arabia on the map in the cinema ecosystem,” he says. “From a country without movie theaters five years ago, we have had such a flourishing of the industry, both creatively and commercially, and it’s hugely rewarding to be a part of that. I hope that the Red Sea International Film Festival continues to thrive for years to come, and continues to be a place where filmmakers can discover and secure their futures — for it to long outlive all of us.” 

Review: ‘Blur of The Wells’

Updated 28 May 2023

Review: ‘Blur of The Wells’

  • The exhibition draws inspiration from water wells, which, if they aren’t constantly maintained and dug deeper, will inevitably undergo cycles of drought and decline — much like our own lives

Visitors to AlUla — the world’s largest ‘living museum’ — have a few more weeks to enjoy Jeddah-based ATHR gallery’s debut at AlUla Gallery, “Blur of The Wells.”

Curated by Nour Gary, the exhibition, which ends mid-June, is a group show featuring some of the most prominent artists in the Saudi contemporary scene.

Gary told Arab News: “‘Blur of the Wells’ conveys how wells were the epicenter of any growing society — especially in this region — but wells need constant maintenance against the elements, as well as regular digging to keep the groundwater accessible.”

The show allows visitors to witness a metamorphosis of sorts — after deterioration and abandonment, a rebirth — all while mirroring the idea that wells are filled with knowledge and information.

The exhibition draws inspiration from water wells, which, if they aren’t constantly maintained and dug deeper, will inevitably undergo cycles of drought and decline — much like our own lives. It also celebrates, and encourages spectators to engage with, the land, drawing inspiration from the area’s natural heritage.

According to the gallery, the goal of the exhibit is also to invite artists back to AlUla after completing local projects or residencies, as well as to introduce established artists in the Saudi scene to AlUla.

Amid AlUla’s ancient rock formations and beneath the sweltering sun, this gallery space is a way for visitors to go deep within, literally, while reflecting on important works by a collection of seasoned artists, including AlUla-veteran Ahmed Mater, who recently showcased his exhibit “Ashab Al-Lal” at the AlUla Arts Festival.

It also features a selection of works by the Palimpsest Of Time residency grantees Mohammed Al-Faraj and Daniah Al-Saleh. Other participating artists are Sara Abdu, Zahrah Alghamdi and Dana Awartani.

ATHR AlUla is the gallery’s third branch. It first opened in Jeddah in 2009, and the other is at JAX in Riyadh.



‘Kandahar’ star Ali Fazal talks filming in AlUla, working with film greats

‘Kandahar’ star Ali Fazal talks filming in AlUla, working with film greats
Updated 28 May 2023

‘Kandahar’ star Ali Fazal talks filming in AlUla, working with film greats

‘Kandahar’ star Ali Fazal talks filming in AlUla, working with film greats
  • The Indian actor spent many childhood holidays in the Kingdom, now he’s starring in ‘Kandahar,’ the first international feature to be completely shot there 

DUBAI: It’s funny how life works out. Decades ago, Indian actor Ali Fazal was just a boy spending every summer with his Muslim family in Saudi Arabia, idly dreaming that one day he might make a Hollywood movie in some far-off place. Little did he know that one day he would have a lead role in a major Hollywood blockbuster filmed in the same country that helped raise him, the first international film to be shot in Saudi Arabia’s historic AlUla region: “Kandahar,” starring modern action icon Gerard Butler. 

“It was such a pleasant surprise. I never thought I’d be shooting a movie in Saudi Arabia, where I spent such a large part of my childhood. Filming anything in the Kingdom was something unheard of for so long, but it’s beautiful how times change,” Fazal tells Arab News. 

“It was one of the most welcoming experiences of my career. Saudis are such a warm people — that I knew — but I was shocked when I landed. I thought I knew this country, but I’d never seen anywhere like AlUla in my life. It’s such a stunning, exotic place, and it was such a joy to call it home for those three months,” he continues.  

Fazal felt at home in more ways than one. He’s become the heir apparent to the late Irrfan Khan’s throne as the best crossover Hollywood-Bollywood actor working today. After standout performances in “Furious 7,” “Victoria & Abdul,” “Death on the Nile” and Amazon’s acclaimed ongoing action series “Mirzapur,” thriving on a set full of actors and crew from across the world has become his trademark.  

Ali Fazal with Gal Gadot in “Death on the Nile.” (Supplied)

That doesn’t mean, however, that his experience on “Kandahar” didn’t teach him a lot. While he’s used to hands-on combat sequences in “Mirzapur,” working with the same team behind Butler’s films “Angel Has Fallen” and “Greenland” brought things to a different level. To match the experience of everyone else around him, Fazal had to put in the work. 

“I ended up landing in AlUla 25 days before the rest of the cast, just so I could learn how to ride a motorcycle in this completely different setting than anything I’ve worked in before. Most of the film I’m chasing Gerry Butler, and though I knew how to ride a bike, riding a bike in the desert is a whole new game,” says Fazal.  


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While Fazal and Butler are fierce rivals on screen, off it the two shared every meal at AlUla’s Banyan Tree resort, with Butler’s playful spirit creating a tight bond between each of the cast members that continues until today.  

“(Butler) just immediately brings you into the fold. He could easily just come in, do his job and go, but he made a point to champion all of us, and that takes a lot of humility and integrity. He would come up to me every day and say, ‘I saw your rushes, and they’re good but I think we can take it in a different direction.’ He always had great notes. He made the film better, and he made me better,” says Fazal. 

“We had this tight-knit little community by night, and by day I think the people of AlUla thought there were earthquakes coming through, because of the hardcore action mayhem we were creating,” Fazal continues. 


A post shared by ali fazal (@alifazal9)

Working on huge international projects has many benefits. Every time Fazal works with someone like Gerard Butler, Judi Dench, Stephen Frears or Kenneth Branagh, he takes away personal lessons on how he can be a better actor and a better person, and sees what it takes to reach the pinnacle of his chosen art.  

“I keep thinking back to one moment with Branagh. It was the night before the Oscar nominations were to be announced, and we were all at the British Museum after the premiere of “Death on the Nile” — sitting back and celebrating — but he was sitting in the corner writing his next stage play. That’s diligence. He puts the time in. The next morning, he was nominated for seven Oscars,” says Fazal.  

Gerard Butler in ‘Kandahar.’ (Supplied)

Thinking about those moments, he confesses, also has made it harder and harder to accept offers for projects that don’t come with that same substance and commitment. As a result, he’s gotten a lot more discerning, and a lot more wary of the limelight of Bollywood, though he knows he’s holding himself back from becoming the kind of celebrity some of his colleagues have become.  

“I run away from the vanity that has kept us in a bubble in Bollywood. I don’t judge the people — it’s the system itself. Indian film can be so much more, and the rest of India is showing that now. If you go down south, we have some of the best films in the world coming out of Malayalam cinema and Tamil cinema, and both the Oscars and Cannes, for example, are taking notice,” Fazal adds. 

Fazal sees Saudi Arabia pushing itself further, sees artists like Branagh and Butler pushing themselves further, and only wants to surround himself with people, and operate in places, that do the same.  

“I just don’t want to do mediocre stuff. If the economics of our respective industries is keeping us apart, that doesn’t mean our sensibilities should suddenly dumb down,” says Fazal. “Everything is in competition with everything else right now, anyways. If you’re on a streaming platform, your project is sitting next to an Oscar winner and some groundbreaking new Polish show and you’re only a click away from rejection. You can’t cheat and get away with mediocrity. You have to really get to the truth of things — the painstaking, emotionally draining truth — or people across the world will just ignore it.”  

Fazal wants to step up his own game, but he also wants to identify and raise awareness of the types of artists and performers who are putting in the work but not yet receiving recognition. After all, while the great Irrfan Khan was able to find massive success in both India and Hollywood before his death, he spent decades not getting the respect he deserved.  

“I want to champion people, because nobody champions artists like us. The same people who are now writing books about Irrfan spent years disregarding him,” he says. “We need people to support great artists not when the rest of the world discovers their talent, but now.” 

Thankfully, the recognition that took Khan decades to find is coming to Fazal more easily. True to his word, his next projects fit the mold of what he yearns for, first with the Netflix original film “Khufiya,” from renowned filmmaker Vishal Bhardwaj, and then a starring role in Academy Award winning director Bill Guttentag’s film “Afghan Dreamers,” the true story of Afghanistan’s all-girls robotics team. 

“I want to be uncomfortable. I want to feel something I’ve never felt before. Great vision pushes you places you have never been, and then something new comes out,” he says. “That’s what I love. That’s where I find my greatest joy.” 

Arab gowns on show as Cannes comes to an end  

Arab gowns on show as Cannes comes to an end  
Updated 28 May 2023

Arab gowns on show as Cannes comes to an end  

Arab gowns on show as Cannes comes to an end  

DUBAI: Arab designers put on a show on the red carpet at the closing ceremony of the 76th Cannes Film Festival in France on Saturday, with a number of stars stepping out in gowns from the region.  

Chinese superstar Fan Bingbing showed off a creation by Lebanese designer Georges Chakra from his Spring/Summer 2023 Couture collection, complete with ombre feather detailing on the ballgown skirt and a sweetheart neckline.  

Thuso Mbedu opted for a heavily beaded gown by Lebanon’s Elie Saab. (Getty Images)

South African actress Thuso Mbedu opted for a heavily beaded gown by Lebanon’s Elie Saab. The Spring/Summer 2023 Couture look featured petal appliques on the short train and came in a white-to-pink ombre hue. Meanwhile, US actress Eva Longoria walked the red carpet in a hot red number by Lebanese Italian designer Tony Ward — the custom-made, figure-hugging look boasted a dramatic train with petal-like 3-D details.

The closing ceremony saw director Justine Triet's “Anatomy of a Fall” win the Palme d'Or, The Associated Press reported.  

 “Anatomy of a Fall,” which stars Sandra Hüller as a writer trying to prove her innocence in her husband’s death, is only the third film directed by a woman to win the Palme d'Or. One of the two previous winners, Julia Ducournau, was on this year's jury.

Chinese superstar Fan Bingbing showed off a creation by Lebanese designer Georges Chakra from his Spring/Summer 2023 Couture collection. (Getty Images)

Cannes' Grand Prix, its second prize, went to Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest,” a chilling Martin Amis adaptation about a German family living next door to Auschwitz. Hüller also stars in that film.

The awards were decided by a jury presided over by two-time Palme winner Ruben Östlund, the Swedish director who won the prize last year for “Triangle of Sadness.” The ceremony preceded the festival's closing night film, the Pixar animation “Elemental.”

Remarkably, the award for “Anatomy of a Fall” gives the indie distributor Neon its fourth straight Palme winners. Neon, which acquired the film after its premiere in Cannes, also backed “Triangle of Sadness,”Ducournau's “Titane” and Bong Joon Ho's “Parasite,” which it steered to a best picture win at the Academy Awards.

Triet was presented the Palme by Jane Fonda, who recalled coming to Cannes in 1963 when, she said, there were no female filmmakers competing “and it never even occurred to us that there was something wrong with that.” This year, a record seven out of the 21 films in competition at Cannes were directed by women.

Taylor Swift debuts new Elie Saab gown on tour

Taylor Swift debuts new Elie Saab gown on tour
Updated 28 May 2023

Taylor Swift debuts new Elie Saab gown on tour

Taylor Swift debuts new Elie Saab gown on tour

DUBAI: Taylor Swift brought her blockbuster “Eras Tour” to the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, on Friday for the first of three shows at the massive venue – and she debuted an Elie Saab gown while at it.   

The singer-songwriter stepped on stage in a dreamy tulle gown with a wide skirt and an embellished corset. Swift performed the track “Enchanted” while wearing the gown from the famed Lebanese couturier.   



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“There is one thing I dream of with the childlike wonder of a hundred birthdays — the first night of MetLife,” Swift said at the beginning of her set, according to Billboard.   

Apart from wearing other Saab looks during the “Eras” tour, she also showed off a gown by Lebanese couturier Zuhair Murad in a peachy hue with starburst sequin work. 

Arab films win big at Cannes Film Festival

Arab films win big at Cannes Film Festival
Updated 27 May 2023

Arab films win big at Cannes Film Festival

Arab films win big at Cannes Film Festival

DUBAI: Arab films and filmmakers won a range of awards at the Cannes Film Festival on Friday.

Sudanese film “Goodbye Julia” by filmmaker Mohamed Kordofani won the Freedom Prize, while “Les Meutes” by Moroccan filmmaker Kamal Lazrek won the Jury’s Prize.

Moroccan film director Asmae El-Moudir addresses the crowd after receiving the best director award for her film “The Mother of All Lies” at the Cannes Film Festival. (Ammar Abd Rabbo/Arab News) 

Moroccan filmmaker Asmae El-Moudir won the Directing Prize for her film “The Mother of All Lies.”

After 21 world premieres, almost two weeks of red-carpet parades and hundreds of thousands of camera flashes, the festival will conclude its 76th edition on Saturday with the presentation of its top prize, the Palme d’Or.

Moroccan actor Ayoub Elaid (L) and Moroccan actor Abdellatif Masstouri pose during a photocall for the film “Les Meutes” at the Cannes Film Festival. (AFP)

Major films were premiered at the festival. Martin Scorsese debuted his Osage murder epic “Killers of the Flower Moon,” a sprawling vision of American exploitation with Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone. “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,” Harrison Ford’s Indy farewell, launched with a tribute to Ford. Wes Anderson premiered “Asteroid City.”

The festival opened on a note of controversy. “Jeanne du Barry,” a period drama co-starring Johnny Depp as Louis XV, played as the opening night’s film. The premiere marked Depp’s highest profile appearance since the conclusion of his explosive trial last year with ex-wife Amber Heard.

The film was backed by Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea International Film Festival.