Saudi holds first film festival

DAMMAM, Saudi Arabia (AP) — It’s a far cry from the glamour of Cannes: No celebrities strutting their stuff; an all-male audience drinking coffee and juice rather than champagne; and if any female spectators showed up — well, no one knew. They came in through a back entrance into a separate hall, off-limits to the male organizers.
Still, there was an undercurrent of excitement at the cultural club in this eastern Saudi city. The four-day film festival that kicked off Tuesday night was the first of its kind in Saudi Arabia — one that many hope will boost the kingdom’s fledgling film industry, and more importantly, lead to the opening of movie theaters.
“I’ve been to numerous festivals since 1976, but there’s nothing more beautiful and sincere than being honored in one’s own environment and society,” said Abdullah al-Mohaisen, a veteran Saudi director presented with an award at the ceremony. “It’s an evening that no one could have imagined.”
Indeed, the event in this devout Muslim country was unthinkable just a few years ago. Saudis who want to watch a movie now can do so only at home — either on satellite TV or censored DVDs in which kisses and other such scenes have been cut out — or in small clubs. Cinemas were closed in the early 1980s amid a rise in conservatism.
The festival is the latest sign of a trend to open up the kingdom, especially culturally, that began in 2005 when King Abdullah came to power.
There’s been an upsurge in Saudi movies, usually short films that cannot be screened officially, and several newspapers now have a weekly movie page that highlights the cultural value of cinema. A few Saudi movies also have taken part in international film festivals.
That has angered conservatives who have flooded newspapers with statements denouncing the movie industry for encouraging decadence, showing the drinking of alcohol and portraying men and women together.
A few days ago, Sheik Abdullah al-Obailan issued a condemnation against a cultural club in the northern city of Hayel for screening an Indian movie, calling its members a “gangrene in the body” with “thoughts shrouded by illicit lust.”
Shetewi al-Ghaithi, a member of the club’s board, said the sheik also referred to the members as “fallen.” The Islamic Affairs Ministry has asked the club for a copy of the clergyman’s taped remarks A few years ago, it cautioned clergymen from such fiery statements and has taken action against those who do.
Significantly, Information Minister Eyad Madani attended the festival Tuesday, giving the competition an unequivocal stamp of official approval.
“There’s a debate over the issue of cinema and movies, and it’s a debate that should continue,” said Madani in a brief speech. “Film is a means to communicate with the rest of humanity and what should be judged is the content and not the means.”
Nonetheless, the shadow of the kingdom’s conservatives was not far off and just before the celebration began, a group from the Committee to Prevent Vice and Promote Virtue dropped by.
They went into the screening hall and asked that the four female Saudi and non-Saudi journalists who were present be moved from the middle of the room to side chairs in the front row. The evening then continued without further disruptions.
The festival began, like all events and celebrations, with a recitation of Quranic verses. Baseball caps and T-shirts emblazoned with the event’s logo — a palm tree with five fronds shaped like film strips — lay on the 450 seats.
Standing in front of a white screen hanging from a metal rod, the host spoke about the 33 Saudi movies competing in the event and scheduled to be shown over the next four days. The films are short, ranging from three minutes to 56 minutes.
The first movie, “Innocent Dreams,” was a touching, beautifully shot 18-minute short directed by 28-year-old Bashir al-Muhaishi, about a boy’s passion for filming.
“It’s a big honor for me,” said al-Muhaishi. “I never thought a film of mine would ever be screened at a premiere.”


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