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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.

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.