After thriving for centuries as a gateway for maritime trade, the coastal Saudi city of Jeddah is now offering its international visitors an entirely different reason to explore its shores: the cinema. From its founding as a fishing village some 2,500 years ago to its 7th-century transformation into a gateway to trade and the sacred cities of Makkah and Al Madinah, Jeddah’s strategic location has ensured its role as an ever-growing commercial hub for the region. Today, as the Kingdom opens its borders to visitors, it’s coming into its own as an international destination.
With major changes in public funding and legislation, Jeddah is undergoing a major transformation, positioning itself to become the Cannes of the Middle East. There’s an abundance of ways film-loving travelers can catch a glimpse of what’s to come for this coastal metropolis.
A new frontier
Through decades of shifting policies, Saudis proved themselves irrevocably hungry for the arts, enjoying foreign films from the comfort of their homes as burgeoning Saudi filmmakers pursued their education abroad. Bit by bit, social mores began to loosen, and by 2012, one such filmmaker, Haifaa al-Mansour, wrote and directed Wadjda (The Green Bicycle), the first feature-length film shot entirely in Saudi.
As global film audiences were able to view the country through her eyes, a new generation of filmmakers was educated, including local directors Lina Malaika and Yaser Hammad, as well as the duo behind AlMaha Films, each honing their skills in the United States before returning home to work in their native Jeddah.
For Malaika, co-directing her debut short film was a key step on her personal journey to define what it means to be a Saudi woman today. Hammad, meanwhile, expresses more of a multicultural perspective, whether as the writer of Roll’em, a full-length film in which Jeddah features as a central character, or in the several short films he’s directed. The brains behind AlMaha Films instead focus on producing genre films, such as the historical epic Born a King, to help bring modern notions of Saudi statehood to the masses.
As hundreds of film houses open throughout the country, there’s no place like Jeddah for lovers of film to get a first-hand glimpse of the blossoming Saudi scene—and it all starts with the Red Sea International Film Festival.
A celebration of cinema
First opening in 2021 with the screening of Joe Wright’s Cyrano, the Red Sea International Film Festival features hundreds of local and international films screened over the course of ten days at the start of each December. The festival, part of the independent, non-profit Red Sea Film Foundation and its associated film labs, fellowships, and panels, is arguably the central driving force in the future of Saudi cinema, funding the filmmakers who strive to express their respective visions.
Inevitably, the festival focuses itself on Jeddah’s most popular locations, and the most striking of all is the Jeddah Corniche, perhaps the most scenic of several Saudi cliffside roads bearing the same French name. Officially inaugurated in 2017, the seaside promenade covers more than 2.5 miles and features a variety of tourist attractions, including the iconic King Fahd Fountain, the world’s tallest fountain of its kind, multiple sandy beaches and islands, and the Jeddah Corniche Circuit, home to the 2021 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. At the 2022 film festival, the Corniche hosted events and screenings at the seaside Ritz-Carlton, the VOX Cinemas at the neighboring Red Sea Mall, and directly on the promenade itself.
A living film set
Trading the glamour of the Jeddah Corniche for centuries of history, the old town of Al Balad, a UNESCO Heritage Site, offers an unparalleled opportunity to travel back in time to experience a different side of Jeddah and its 7th-century roots. With its museums, markets, and intricate architecture carved from coral and latticed wood, the neighborhood offers audiences the chance to view the roots of the city up close.
Cinema as a meeting place
In conjunction with the Red Sea Film Foundation, the Hayy Cinema opened in late 2022. As one facet of the new Saudi location of the international, independently-operated Hayy Jameel Arts Center, this audio-visual center, designed by the architecture firm waiwai, is the nation’s first of its kind, featuring year-round retrospectives, talks, and exhibitions. Visitors can access the center free of charge from Wednesdays through Sundays. Refer to their website for information on specific film screenings.
Combining a rich, multicultural past with the determination to effectively build its film scene from the ground up, Jeddah is making this a truly exciting time to be a filmmaker—and film lover—in Saudi. As its artists continue to discover their voices, Jeddah stands to grow immeasurably, meriting a visit from art and film lovers alike.