Where making movies is making trouble

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — For six months, movie-lover Mamdouh Salem devoted his waking hours to what he affectionately calls his “child.”

He recruited sponsors, arranged advertising, rented hotel rooms, organized workshops and sent out invitations to scores of young filmmakers, directors and fans for the fourth annual Jeddah Film Festival.

But on the eve of the festival, as Salem made last-minute checks to the red carpet and sound system, he got an urgent call from a city official with a heart-stopping message: The Ministry of Interior has ordered the event canceled. “I was shocked,” Salem, 33, said softly. “I sat down, silent.”

For most of the night and the next morning, he was on the phone. “I had to inform everybody,” he recalled. “Some people were already in their hotels in Jeddah, others were getting on flights at airports.”

The festival’s abrupt halting last July underscored the arbitrary limits to the greater social freedom that Saudis have enjoyed in recent years — especially when it comes to that most sensitive of cultural touchstones: movies.

This is the only country in the world where commercial movie theaters are banned — a prohibition arising from the austere version of Islam propagated by its influential religious establishment.

These clerics and their supporters regard films as “evil” because they distract people from religion and spread “corruption,” meaning un-Islamic habits such as people drinking alcohol, taking drugs and freely interacting with the opposite sex.

Much like the ban on female drivers, movie theaters have become another highly visible Rubicon that the clerical establishment, and its powerful allies in government, insist must not be crossed.

Despite this hostile environment, an indigenous film-making scene is taking shape. It is fed by cinemaphiles like Abdulamusin Al Mutairi, 29, who has made three shorts, including “Dream,” which is about the trials of a Christian female expatriate working in the kingdom.

He chose the topic “because we talk about everything except people who have a different religion from us,” he said. “They live here and nobody cares about their story.”

Mutairi, who wears his long dark hair slicked back and has a day job overseeing medical supplies at a hospital, once flew all the way to New Zealand to attend a film festival. His favorite director is Quentin Tarantino.

Back in 2000, he and fellow film fanatics used to chat about movies and post reviews online. Then they began writing reviews for local newspapers. In 2006, the local film scene got a huge nudge when Saudi filmmaker, Haifaa Al Mansour, garnered international acclaim for “Women Without Shadows,” her film probing why many Saudi women veil their faces.

After her awards, said festival organizer Salem, “some young people began to think, ‘I can make a short film.’ And every year [since then] there are more Saudi filmmakers.”

Al Mutairi was one of them. He and his friends, who favor jeans over the traditional white Saudi robe, began making shorts “with a handycam.” They also formed a club to support each other’s film projects. They call it “Talashi,” or “Fade-out,” and their clubhouse is a vacant apartment where they stash their movie-making equipment and hold brainstorming sessions.

Since there are no film schools or institutes, their initial efforts were all trial and error, picked up mostly from the internet. “We don’t have anybody to guide us,” said Hana Al Omair. “We’re just doing it as we think it should be and then we realize once it’s done that this is not the right way, but we can’t do anything about it.”

Omair recently completed “Beyond Words,” a 52-minute documentary about what happens when two groups of musicians — Argentines and Saudis — can only communicate through music.

Like Mutairi’s “Dream,” sensitive topics are often the focus of Saudi films. Recent ones have tackled child sexual abuse, the lack of choice in marriage partners and the sometimes stifling conformity of Saudi society.

The filmmakers’ biggest obstacle is finding a place to screen their finished products. Usually, the venue is a film festival in a nearby Gulf country.

“Festivals open a big window for the young, new generation in Saudi Arabia, which needs films, especially ones about social subjects,” said Salem, who has his own media production company and made three shorts himself. Of the 106 films set to be screened at last summer’s aborted festival, 48 were made by Saudis.

Saudi Arabia’s embryonic film-making scene is in large part due to the more open atmosphere that has marked King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz’s reign. In May 2008, then-Information Minister Eyad Madani attended the opening of a four-day Saudi film competition in the eastern city of Dammam that featured about 50 Saudi-made films. More than 600 men filled the main auditorium; women sat in a separate hall. Madani’s presence sent a clear message: Showing films in public is OK.

Prince Al Waleed bin Talal also took King Abdullah’s more relaxed approach to heart. A nephew of the king, and one of the world’s richest men, Al Waleed is known for his progressive views. Earlier this year, he issued a statement saying that “films and movie theaters will come inevitably” to the kingdom. It was like throwing down the gauntlet to religious conservatives.
Among Al Waleed’s holdings is the media and entertainment giant Rotana Audiovisual, which has started producing big-budget, full-length commercial films. The first, “Keif al Hal?” or “What’s Up?,” was released in 2006.

A year ago, Rotana organized limited screenings of its second film, “Menahi,” to mixed audiences in Jeddah. They took place twice a day for eight days. Women sat in the balcony, men on the ground floor. Popcorn was sold. The company later said that 25,000 people — 9,000 of them women — had bought tickets to see the film.

Six months later, Rotana got permission to show “Menahi” in the far more more conservative capital of Riyadh. But it was nearly a stealth screening: The film was shown only once, had a bare minimum of advance publicity and only men were admitted.

In both Jeddah and Riyadh, long-bearded men showed up at the screenings to try to convince movie-goers that what they were doing was wrong, citing the “dangers” of cinema, local papers reported.

Conservative clerics and their supporters in the bureaucracy also wrote to the king complaining about the movies. "Cinema is still regarded as an evil," read one petition, according to the Gulf News. “It was unacceptable [in] this holy land earlier. How then will it be acceptable ... when people are becoming more and more mindful of ... obeying the commands of God and keeping away from what He forbids?"

The cancelation of Salem’s 4th Jeddah Film Festival surely pleased these conservatives, who are an important constituency for Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz.

Salem said he was never given a reason for the cancellation and had no option but to comply, despite having all the necessary official permissions, including from the progressive local governor Prince Khalid bin Faisal.

The cancellation was doubly puzzling, he added, because he had already staged three previous festivals — though the first two were called “Visuals Shows” to avoid attracting unwanted attention.

Salem estimated that he and Rotana, the festival’s main financial sponsor, lost about $265,000 with the cancellation. And he lamented that the $50,000 in award money, which winners use to fund their next film project, was never given out.

What about next year?

“I think I will make a festival every year in a different country — Paris, London, Dubai, Egypt,” he said. “But in Saudi Arabia, I cannot now.”