Seven films produced by Saudis will take part in a festival in the United Arab Emirates’ capital Abu Dhabi in March, the strongest showing yet for the country’s nascent cinema industry.
Entertainment firm Rotana, owned by royal entrepreneur Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, says it is producing the first full-length Saudi film, to hit Gulf cinemas this year.
Abdullah Eyaf, 28, a director who runs a website promoting film, said: “We’d like to do films that our society likes, that help the rise of cinema, and also get recognition. I’d like our voice to reach the West.”
His 45-minute documentary, Cinema 500km, tackles the issue head-on, depicting a Saudi who must travel to neighbouring Bahrain to watch films.
Eyaf says: “The film asks the question ‘why is there no cinema here?’ It’s a spark to get people to talk about the subject.
“In Bahrain, cinema owners say that during holidays 80 to 90% of their customers are Saudis. All the video stores in Riyadh have large memberships. The Saudi people want cinema.”
The authorities in Riyadh allowed public screenings of children’s cartoons in November, the first time films have been shown in public since the 1970s when the kingdom’s powerful religious establishment took a position against cinema.
Some Muslim scholars believe any depiction of the human form is forbidden in Islam and see the US-dominated film industry as an immoral force dominated by sex and violence.
King Abdullah says he is seeking
Observers also say there was a commercial disincentive in the 1970s to running cinemas.
Now with a native population of about 18 million, 60% of whom are under 21, interest in Saudi Arabia could be huge, directors say.
Mohammad Bazaid, who has a silent film entry in the Emirates Film Competition that starts on 1 March, said: “We are trying to create some movement in the stagnant waters and to find some form of legitimacy and acceptance for this industry.”
He said Saudi Arabia, where King Abdullah supports cautious reforms, could follow the lead of Iran, a conservative Muslim country with a globally respected cinema industry.
Pioneering woman director
Saudi director Haifaa al-Mansour has led the way, winning international acclaim for documentaries in 2003 and 2004. Her latest film, 2005’s Nisaa bila Dhill (Women with no Shadow), will also be screened in Abu Dhabi.
“We have opposition to women driving and entering other fields. They oppose new concepts coming to society, and cinema is one”
Al-Mansour and many other young directors are based in the Eastern Province, near more open Gulf Arab societies such as Bahrain, the UAE and Kuwait.
She said: “We have opposition to women driving and entering other fields. They oppose new concepts coming to society, and cinema is one. But it will phase out with time.”
Even the logistics of putting a film together are difficult in Saudi Arabia. Rules of public morality require women to be accompanied by a male relative in public and the genders are segregated in most public spaces.
Al-Mansour said she often shoots early in the day in quiet areas to avoid attracting the attention of the religious police who patrol the streets.
She said: “I was a little bit concerned, but no one noticed.”
“Cinema is a huge industry in the West which often targets Islam, so setting up a cinema industry will do justice to Islam”
Shaikh Salman al-Odeh,
Saudi directors were encouraged last month when Shaikh Salman al-Odeh, a leading scholar, said on Saudi entertainment channel MBC that cinema deserved support because it could promote Islam.
Saudi papers quoted al-Odeh as saying: “Cinema is a huge industry in the West which often targets Islam, so setting up a cinema industry will do justice to Islam. This is a good demand and a good thing.”
Mohsen Awajy, a lawyer, says contradictions in the informal ban on cinema would eventually lead to the collapse of religious opposition.
Cinema may be off limits, but young Saudis can flick from religious stations to state television to entertainment channels featuring chat show host Oprah Winfrey and US sitcoms.
Awajy added: “If cinema is prohibited, what about the very bad channels received from abroad?
“Or those owned and financed by Saudis, such as MBC or the channels of Prince Alwaleed?
“Films shown in public are more conservative than the private television channels that broadcast into private rooms.”