Some of the biggest names in British film stand accused of being involved in ‘art-washing’ after agreeing to take part in a film festival in Saudi Arabia next week.
The regime has reportedly carried out 12 beheadings in recent weeks, and it is widely accepted that government agents murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.
Next Thursday, director Guy Ritchie will receive an ‘honorary award to recognise his exceptional contribution to the film industry’ at the Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah. He will also give a talk about his career at the event, which is run by the country’s culture minister.
ALISON BOSHOFF: Some of the biggest names in British film stand accused of being involved in ‘art-washing’ after agreeing to take part in a film festival in Saudi Arabia next week (Guy Ritchie pictured in 2017)
Ritchie’s agent at WME did not respond to requests for comment, nor did his lawyer Matthew Saver.
It is not known whether the director was paid a fee for attending, but industry sources say that it would be standard for attendees to receive one, as well as free travel and accommodation.
There is further British involvement, with two UK films — Sam Mendes’s Empire Of Light, starring Olivia Colman, and Shekhar Kapur’s What’s Love Got To Do With It, with Lily James and Dame Emma Thompson — being screened at the event.
The latter, a romcom scripted by Jemima Khan, will be the opening night premiere. It was made by British film company Working Title, whose co-chairs — Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner — are both CBEs.
Uh-oh: It is not known whether the director was paid a fee for attending, but industry sources say that it would be standard for attendees to receive one, as well as free travel and accommodation (pictured in 2015)
Khan is planning to attend, but says she agonised over the decision. ‘I have always been and continue to be critical of the Saudi government’s human rights abuses. But I have learned from my years in Pakistan that, while shunning people rarely brings change, engaging through art and culture sometimes can.
‘I thought about this a lot, and I feel that, on balance, there is value in screening a film about multiculturalism and tolerance, featuring strong, independent women, in a country where just five years ago, cinema-going was illegal and women weren’t allowed to drive, nor go out in public without a male ‘guardian’, let alone make films.’
A spokesman for Thompson, who has been a great advocate for human rights and supported organisations including Amnesty International, said this week she would not be attending. She is understood to be on a press tour to promote the film Matilda.
Agents for Lily James did not return requests for comment. The music producer Naughty Boy, who also worked on the picture, confirmed on Monday that he will be going, and said: ‘I am looking forward to it.’
Oh dear: There is further British involvement, with two UK films — Sam Mendes’s Empire Of Light, starring Olivia Colman (pictured in October 2022), and Shekhar Kapur’s What’s Love Got To Do With It, with Lily James and Dame Emma Thompson — being screened at the event
What’s Love Got To Do With It will have been entered in the Festival by distributor Studio Canal. Nobody at the company was willing to comment this week.
The Red Sea International Film Festival is run by a foundation chaired by Prince Badr bin Abdullah Al-Saud, the Saudi culture minister.
Of course, film is not the only UK industry to have links with the Saudis, but a spokesman for Human Rights Watch urged celebrities to limit their involvement, or at least speak out about human rights abuses while there.
‘Saudi authorities often use international cultural festivals as a reputation laundering tool, in the same way that they have used previous celebrity and sporting events to try to whitewash their quite terrible image,’ the representative of the New York based organisation said recently.
We do not take a position on boycott, but we would urge people to educate themselves as much as they can about what is going on, and ask them to use their platform to speak out about abuses.’
Peter Frankental, Amnesty International UK’s Economic Affairs Programme Director, took a similar line: ‘Whether actors and directors go to Jeddah is a matter for them, but we’d strongly urge attendees to use their platforms to raise human rights issues.
‘Earlier this year, the Saudi authorities executed 81 people in a single day, there are juvenile offenders currently on death row, and we’ve seen Twitter users like Leeds student Salma al-Shehab given huge jail sentences; and there’s never been proper accountability for the shocking murder of Jamal Khashoggi.’
Hollywood director Oliver Stone is serving as the Festival’s jury president.
Problematic: A romcom scripted by Jemima Khan will be the opening night premiere of a film festival in Saudi Arabia next week (pictured in October 2022)