Cinema is back to Saudi Arabia… sort of.
Rotana, the entertainment group owned by the country’s richest man Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, premiered the comedy Menahi in Jeddah and Taif… but not in Riyadh. It was obvious that Rotana were trying to avoid a confrontation with the the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice aka the religious police. The Commission are much more powerful in Riyadh than they are in Jeddah and other places.
Still, it was obvious from the statements by Ayman Halwani, GM of Rotana, that they wanted to keep a low profile. They were wary of drawing too much attention to the screenings: “We’re worried that some of the conservatives might try to filibuster the opening,” he said. Have you ever heard of a movie producer who does not want his work to get much attention? Well, that’s Saudi Arabia for you, a country so full of contradictions it will make your head go dizzy.
Nevertheless, and despite the precautions taken by Rotana, the Commission unequivocally denounced the screenings. Sheikh Ibrahim al-Ghaith, head of the religious police told the press: “cinema is evil and we do not need it. We have enough evil already.” But one day later, al-Ghaith changed his tone on the subject. “We are not against having cinema if it shows the good and does not violate Islamic law,” he said. Now some people in the local media praised him for having the courage to take a U-turn, but many believe that he changed his line after a call from a senior royal.
In any case, his flip-floping did not seem to undermine the overwhelming enthusiasm of moviegoers who filled the theaters in Jeddah and Taif throughout the Eid holiday. The shows were all sold out and Rotana said they plan to produce 3 Saudi films this year.
So what does this mean to the country? Khalid al-Dakhil, former political sociology professor at KSU, thinks it is a giant step for the Saudi society. “(It shows) the erosion of the religious establishment’s influence, who realized they have to concede,” he told Reuters. I’m not sure that I agree with him on describing this step as “giant” but it certainly indicates the changes taking place in the country. Will 2009 see the official opening of the first proper movie theater in Saudi Arabia? I won’t bet on it, not just because betting is illegal here, but also because living in this place teaches you not to hold your breath when it comes to change.
Cinema, like women’s driving and other issues that we have been discussing for years now, has become a long, boring drama. Let’s just hope we will be graced by some happy endings.