An Insider's Insight: Cannes Film Festival highlights a new era of cinematic triumph for Saudi

An Insider's Insight: Cannes Film Festival highlights a new era of cinematic triumph for Saudi

From historic firsts and prestigious awards to dazzling red carpet moments and groundbreaking animation, Saudi cinema has made an indelible mark at the 77th Cannes Film Festival
27 May 24
Cast of Norah with Chair of RSIFF Jomana Al-Rashid and CEO Mohammed Al-Turki Image source: IG jomanaalrashid

Saudi cinema spectacularly came of age at the 77th Cannes Film Festival.

Norah, directed by Tawfik Alzaidi, starring Yaqoub Alfarhan and newcomer Maria Bahrawi, was the first ever Saudi film screened in official selection at the renowned film festival, a historic moment for Saudi film.

Filmed in AlUla with an all-Saudi cast, Norah received a rousing standing ovation after its premiere at the Debussy Theatre and was deservedly awarded the Special Mention by the Un Certain Regard Jury.

The award-winning homegrown feature film will be released in Saudi cinemas on June 20, and the award recognition only further demonstrates its international appeal.

Capitalising on its success, Film AlUla spent heavily in Cannes promoting its desert location and world-class facilities. Notably, lead actress Maria Bahrawi was feted in glowing pieces in Hollywood Reporter and Variety and a huge billboard of the film poster dominated the Croisette.

Saudi Gets Animated at Cannes

The animated Saudi film “Wa Isjod Wa Iqtareb” (“Prostrate and Draw Near”) was the winner of the 'Animation That Matters' award at the Marché du Film, the festival’s industry networking section.

Written, directed and produced by the dynamic mother-daughter duo Nabila Abuljadayel and Suraya Al-Shehry, this heartfelt short film is set during the pandemic at Makkah’s Grand Mosque when only the cleaning staff were able to worship. Nabila posted a celebratory photo with the Cannes Jury President and Barbie director, Greta Gerwig.

@elnabila @suraya_productions

Saudi Designers on the Red Carpet

Cannes started in typically glamorous style with Meryl Streep receiving an Honorary Palme D'Or, and ended with the American film Anora, directed by Sean Baker, surprising many by winning the coveted Palme D'Or.

The glamour continued as Saudi Arabian fashion graced on the red carpet.

Saudi Arabian fashion influencer Nojoud Al-Rumaihi wore a structured, corseted, linen two-piece created by famed Saudi fashion designer Mohammed Ashi, for his Paris-based brand Ashi Studio, as she attended the premiere of the Ali Abbasi directed film, “The Apprentice”.

Renowned Saudi designer Eman Al-Ajlan won many new admirers by dressing the British TV presenter and model Leomie Anderson in an eye-catching structured wired mini dress for the amfAR Gala at the Hotel du Cap. Dutch model and former Victoria's Secret Angel Romee Strijd, looked nothing short of heavenly as she posed for photographers on the red carpet in a blush pink Al-Ajlan couture gown, bedazzled in hand-beaded crystals and plumes of ostrich feathers.

Al-Ajlan also dressed Desperate Housewives actress Eva Longoria in a stunning figure-hugging silver dress that she wore to the Trophee Chopard event at the Hotel Martinez.

@eman_alajlan @nojoud_alrumaihi @ashistudio

The Martinez Wins Palme D'Or for the Best Hotspot

The Hôtel Martinez reclaimed its crown as the hotel with the festival’s most fashionable scene.

Each day a glittering array of stars including actress Eva Longoria and models like Bella Hadid and Coco Rocha had photo shoots on the famed sweeping stairs of Hôtel Martinez. Dame Helen Mirren was also spotted on the balcony of her luxury suite enjoying the scene below that resembled something out of an extravagant Fellini movie.

The hottest spot was unquestionably the hotel’s stunning new La Palme D'Or restaurant, from chef Jean Imbert, an instant hit with celebrities. Greta Gerwig, Eva Green and Elle Fanning were spotted enjoying mouth-watering dishes like The Gamberoni, sourced wild from the Gulf of Genoa and rolled in a fine jelly and marigold flower, mango virgin and kumquat. Selena Gomez and Zoe Saldana rushed here to celebrate the rapturous reception of their film, Emilia Perez, which won them a joint Best Actress Award. It was here over a sensational Frosted Lemon dessert that I sealed the financing deal for my new film, Oxbridge.

La Palme D'Or has gone out of its way to create an inventive tasting menu that will appeal to Saudi tastes, just in time for direct flights from the KSA to Nice. Zuma Cannes, in a spectacular panoramic sea-view location at the famous Palm Beach, was also a magnet for stars like Adam Driver and Shia LeBeouf who dined there after the premiere of their film, Megalopolis.

@martinezhotel @lapalmedorrestaurant @zumacannesofficial

My Cannes Favourites

My personal favourite was Demi Moore in the body horror satire, The Substance, a compelling look at the ageing process. It received a 13-minute standing ovation on its way to winning the Jury and Best Screenplay prizes.

I also enjoyed The Apprentice from Iranian director Ali Abbasi, a riveting look at the origins of Donald Trump (Sebastian Stan). After its premiere, Donald Trump's campaign team issued a “cease and desist” letter to The Apprentice producers, however the film continues to make waves in the industry.

My own film, Quintessentially Irish, starring Pierce Brosnan, was warmly received at a gala premiere at the Stelios Foundation in aid of the Princess Grace Irish Library. His Royal Highness, Prince Albert II of Monaco who features in the film, even wore a shamrock tie for the occasion.

Location, Location, Location

NEOM had a significant presence at Cannes this year, promoting the attractive 40% tax credit that the Saudi government is offering international film companies. It was Highly Commended for the Emerging Location Award at Cannes’ Global Production Awards, with Film AlUla winning the category.

The Red Sea Film Foundation hosted a glamorous Women in Cinema gala at the Hotel du Cap attended by Uma Thurman and Richard Gere, honouring Saudi actors Adhwa Fahad and Aseel Omran. Jomana Al-Rashed, the RSIFF Chairperson, said it supports “the underrepresented yet unparalleled female voices that propel our industry to new, undiscovered heights and we have supported over 79 films from female directors."

NEOM also made a splash co-hosting the starry Deadline Disruptors party at the Carlton Beach Club at Carlton Cannes, a Regent Hotel, it was here where Megalopolis director, Francis Ford Coppola, was seen enjoying the iconic venue’s iced matcha.

Francis Ford Coppola later presented the Honorary Palme D'Or to his one-time assistant and legendary Star Wars creator, George Lucas. In his speech, George Lucas emphasised that persistence is the key ingredient for success in the film business.

This tenacity is precisely what the Saudi film industry needs, in order to achieve its ambitious yet attainable goal of becoming a global force in filmmaking.

Dr. Frank Mannion is an Irish film director and academic whose new film, A Sip of Irish, begins production next week. Take a look at the preview here.