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Where making movies is making trouble

Their work is often branded too racy or "un-Islamic," and banned. But Saudi filmmakers persist.

Saudi religious men stand near a poster of the Saudi film, "Menhai," at its screening at King Fahad Center in Riyadh, June 6, 2009. The religious men were attempting to stop people from watching the film, saying that movies were forbidden in Islam. (Fahad Shadeed/Reuters)

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.