Some of Hollywood’s biggest stars have been accused of turning a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s ‘egregious’ human rights abuses by going to a film festival in the Kingdom.
The likes of Will Smith, Sharon Stone and Johnny Depp have already attended the Red Sea Film Fesival in Jeddah, which human rights groups say is being for ‘arts-washing’.
The festival, which is run by a foundation chaired by the Saudi culture minister, is said to have offered stars as much as $1million each for their appearances.
Also among those gracing the event over the weekend, which Puck news referred to as the ‘blood red carpet’, are Baz Luhrmann, Ed Westwick, Alessandra Ambrosio and Sofia Vergara.
It was confirmed last night that even Gwyneth Paltrow, who essentially retired from the film business over a decade ago and has made fortune from her wellness brand Goop, is set to attend.
Festival: Gwyneth Paltrow is at the centre of an ‘arts-washing’ controversy after agreeing to fly to Saudi Arabia for a controversial film festival
Red carpet: Johnny Depp attends the Opening Night screening of ‘HWJN’ at the Red Sea International Film Festival 2023
Actor: Will Smith speaks on stage at In Conversation with Will Smith during this year’s Red Sea International Film Festival
Event: Sharon Stone attends the Women In Cinema Gala during the Red Sea International Film Festival 2023 on December 01, 2023
Oscar-winner Paltrow, 51, is the latest and most surprising A-list signing, particularly as outside of her appearances as Pepper Potts in Marvel films she’s not had a leading role in a film since Mortdecai in 2015.
She said in an interview in 2020 that she had ‘hit the bullseye’ aged 26 by winning an Oscar for Shakespeare in Love and then realised that she didn’t love acting ‘all that much’.
A spokesman for the festival yesterday confirmed that Paltrow is to appear ‘In Conversation’ with Jomana Al Rashid, the CEO of Arab News on Wednesday night.
Critics regard the as a part of the regime’s ‘arts-washing’ and ‘sports-washing’ in which glamorous international events are held in order to distract from human rights abuses.
Homosexuality remains a crime punishable by death in the kingdom and widespread outrage greeted the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, by agents of the Saudi government at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.
On Friday, the Puck news website ran an item about ‘the Saudi’s blood red carpet’ claiming: ‘$1 million was the standing offer that went around the talent agencies for major stars to walk the carpet… Will Smith may even have gotten more than that.’
Depp appears as he has a long-standing relationship with the festival as its foundation were among the backers of his comeback film Jeanne Du Barry. It is understood that Depp was not paid for his attendance.
A spokesman for Paltrow did not respond to requests for comment about her fee for attending.
Speaking at the festival on Saturday, Oscar-winner Will Smith – rebuilding his reputation after the Oscars slap in 2022, said he was keen to work in the Kingdom, saying he had ambitions to make: ‘A movie with Denzel – yes! A movie with Denzel Washington in Saudi!’
He added: ‘You know, I think that right now the thing I’m really excited about is the transfer of knowledge. I really want to teach. I really want to teach filmmaking. I want to work with people on big movies.
‘And so what’s exciting to me about Saudi is it’s a it’s a brand new film community. So it’s brand new filmmakers. And there’s a style of global storytelling that I’ve traveled the world and I understand tiny little adjustments that make things global – to be able to take local stories and make them global.
‘So I’m excited to travel the world and collaborate and be able to teach and build build global storytelling community. I have a deep faith in the power of sharing our stories with one another, to help heal wounds; to help learn about each other.
Star: Sofía Vergara attends the Women In Cinema Gala during the Red Sea International Film Festival 2023 on December 01Sofía Vergara
Pink: Sharon Stone turned heads at the HWJN screening at the Red Sea International Film Festival 2023 in Saudi Arabia
Dress: Model Alessandra Ambrosio looked incredible in Saudi Arabia
Suit: Gossip Girl actor Ed Westwick attended the Opening Night screening of ‘HWJN’ at the Red Sea International Film Festival
Film: Depp appears as he has a long-standing relationship with the festival as its foundation were among the backers of his comeback film Jeanne Du Barry
‘I feel like this next phase of my life is going to be working in global collaboration to create an exchange of our stories that creates bridges. I just don’t feel like politics will necessarily create the change so I’m putting the burden on myself and on global artists. Absolutely. I love it here. Someone tell me where my house needs to be!’
The chair of the jury this year is the Elvis and Moulin Rouge! Director Baz Luhrmann who has also spoken warmly about Saudi Arabia.
The country banned cinema until six years ago but is now pouring millions into incentives to and this festival as part of its strategy aimed at moving the economy away from its dependence on oil.
Its selection as the opening title is seen as a sign of the growing strength of the film and TV business in Saudi Arabia, just six years after the lifting of the country’s 35-year cinema ban as part of its 2030 strategy aimed at moving the economy away from oil.
Baz Luhrmann said he came to Saudi before accepting the role. ‘I came in a quiet way to do my own investigation… For 30 years there was no cinema and then, all of a sudden, movies are being seen. I got to know the studios but what I was really struck by was the young, emerging filmmakers and how hungry they are to tell their story. That’s why I am here. At a time when politics fails us, storytellers have to be heard and that’s what we’re here to support.’
A spokesperson for Human Rights Watch said earlier this year: ‘For a number of years the Saudi government has been using this high profile Festival as a means by which to draw attention from its egregious human rights record – and they are continuing to do this, unfortunately.
‘The human rights record in the country is only getting worse. We have documented an awful case of a retired teacher who was sentenced to death based on his peaceful twitter and YouTube activity in July this year.
‘It is deeply concerning that this Festival is engaging powerful artists and performers and celebrities who have made use of freedom of expression through their art and yet are participating in a Festival which is hosted by the government which does not tolerate that freedom.’
The message from the charity is: ‘If you must go, then use your platform to raise awareness about the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia.’