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Cairo and Saudi’s Red Sea Film Festivals Soldier on Despite Omicron

As the spread of the new Omicron COVID-19 variant prompts uncertainty around how the winter film festival calendar will play out, two events in the Arab world — the Cairo Film Festival and Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea fest — have soldiered on, providing a measure of hope for the global festival circuit.

Cairo, which kicked off Nov. 26 and wrapped on Sunday, has pulled off a successful in-person edition, despite some last-minute industry and talent defections. Several Cairo attendees, including Cannes chief Thierry Fremaux and U.S. producer Lawrence Bender, segued directly from Cairo to Jeddah where the Red Sea fest on Monday held a historic gala opening with no shortage of regional and international stars strutting down the red carpet.

“I’m really happy that we haven’t heard of any [COVID-19] cases — at least not yet,” Cairo chief Mohamed Hefzy told Variety as Cairo came to a close, adding that he hoped things remained that way.

“Obviously we continue to be cautious,” Hefzy said, noting that everyone in the industry is “concerned about Berlin and Rotterdam and other festivals in the winter season.”

Cairo, of course, did experience some last-minute cancellations from industry executives and filmmakers who were stuck in countries such as Morocco, which last week shut down all incoming air travel. Although such developments complicated matters for organizers, “we managed to cope with it and survive,” said Hefzy.

The milestone first edition of Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Film Festival on Monday saw a robust contingent of top international talents making the trek to Jeddah, including Catherine Deneuve, Clive Owen, Hilary Swank, Anthony Mackie and Stephen Dorff, as well as lots of regional talents such as Egyptian icon Yousra, Cairo-based Tunisian megastar Hend Sabry and groundbreaking Saudi director Haifaa Al-Mansour. 

“The success of last night is a testament to a number of factors coming together,” said veteran executive Wayne Borg, chief of the nascent media, entertainment, culture and fashion industries hub at Saudi’s futuristic city NEOM.

And the willingness, particularly of the regional and international industries, to support this by attending was tremendous to see,” Borg added, noting that the industry is recognizing not just the significance of the event, but also how the film industry is emerging in Saudi following the removal four years ago of a 35-year ban on cinema for religion-related reasons.

Of course, there have been last-minute cancellations at the Red Sea event. The press conference on Tuesday for the regional premiere of Hany Abu-Assad’s female-driven spy thriller “Huda’s Saloon” was called off “due to travel delays” for the cast.

“There is this fear of, like: what if they shut down the country? We don’t want to get stuck. And that’s holding some people back” said Gianluca Chakra, head of Dubai-based distribution company Front Row Filmed Entertainment.

Nonetheless, Red Sea fest organizers on Tuesday claimed a total of more than 3,000 registered attendees. Though they declined to provide a more detailed breakdown and roughly two-thirds are estimated to be locals, the turnout is robust given the circumstances.

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