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.”