Fanatics Everywhere

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The signs in the four drawings read, clockwise: Book Fair, Poetic Reading, Theater, Cinema. Read more.

Boring Drama, Happy Endings

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.

Movies in Riyadh

Despite the fact that cinema theaters are not allowed in the country, it seems that an active community of movie enthusiasts is flourishing these days in Riyadh, offering several opportunities for people to watch films at special screenings in different parts of the city. If you are in town these days, you might want to check them out. Here’s a short guide for the movies that will be screened starting tomorrow:

The following screenings will be at King Fahd Cultural Center (map) and they are open to women only:

Tuesday, July 8

10:00-12:00 — Four Arabic short films
14:00-16:00 — Four Saudi Short films

Wednesday, July 9

10:00-12:00 — Letters of Iwo Jima

For more info, contact Hana Abdullah: haom at hotmail dot co dot uk

The following screenings will be at the Society of Culture and Arts (map) and they are open to men only:

Wednesday, July 9

21:00-21:12 — Absence (Drama from Bahrain)
21:15-23:00 — An Inconvenient Truth (Documentary)

Wednesday, July 16

20:30-23:00 — United 93

For more info, contact Faisal Auda: face_off995 at hotmail dot com

All screenings are free of charge.

First Saudi Film Festival

Guest blogger Lubna Hussain is currently in France enjoying the 61st Annual Cannes Film Festival. Meanwhile, the first film festival in Saudi Arabia started last Tuesday in Dammam. The Associated Press reports, “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, I think it is good to see the event takes place. I really wanted to attend some of the films there over the weekend, but unfortunately I’m stuck here in Riyadh for another week or so. The AP report carried this paragraph that made me feel like laughing and crying at the same time:

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.

What debate the minister is talking about? The stupid debate over opening up cinema theaters in the country, like the debate over women’s driving, has gone way longer than it should. The government should step up and show its citizens and the world that they are not to be held back by a group of backward lunatics who, if it was up to them, would like to take us back to the Middle Ages. It is about time.