Abdullah al-Eyaf, Ahmed Bin Baz

  • If you enjoyed reading about Abdulmohsen al Mutairi and young Saudi filmmakers, you probably want to read this interview with director Abdullah Al-Eyaf. His latest film, “Ayesh,” has been well received and won the first award of the Gulf Film Festival that was recently held in Dubai.
  • In the second part of a series on Saudi Arabia, GlobalPost runs this piece by Caryle Murphy who profiles the upstart scholar Ahmed Bin Baz. I have been reading for the young Bin Baz for a while now, so I’m not surprised by the opinions he offers in this interview. However, I’m a bit surprised to see Dr. Mohammed al-Hodaif, father of the late Hadeel al-Hodaif, likens Bin Baz to Paris Helton in the sense that he is using his father’s name to become famous. Totally uncalled for.
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Filmmakers, open letter to MoDo, muttawa hunt

  • Whenever someone asks me what interesting things Saudis are doing, I tell them to look at our rising group of young filmmakers. They are determined, passionate, and hardworking. Abu Dhabi’s The National caught up with my friend Abdulmuhsen al Mutairi when he was shooting his latest short film. “If you believe in art, you can make something, and in the beginning you will make very low, medium-quality work,” he said. “But if you continue to learn from your mistakes and the reviews of your audience, you will have something.”
  • Sarah Haji at MMW has an open letter to Maureen Dowd regarding her latest Vanity Fair travel piece about Saudi Arabia. “So unless you’re a self-righteous Times columnist with a history of thinking that thousands of years of culture and tradition should tremble in your Western wake, you should attempt not to project all of your customs onto another people,” Sarah writes.
  • Eman al-Nafjan aka Saudiwoman announced last week she was taking a break from her blog. Then she discovered she just can’t be away from the blog. How cute is that? So on her comeback post, she takes an expat friend who is about to leave the country to the mall on a Muttawa hunt. They got lucky in Riyadh Gallery, where they had a chance to witness a classic CPVPV raid on shoppers. Good times.

The Saudi Moon Boat

The Saudi pavilion at Shanghai’s World Expo has proven very popular, some people who want get in started faking disabilities in order to avoid waiting time that could reach up to nine hours. “While the opening weeks at Expo saw surprisingly low attendance, Saudi Arabia’s pavilion has emerged as among the most popular,” WSJ’s China Realtime Report blog said. One of the main attractions in the Saudi pavilion, nicknamed the “moon boat,” is its 1,600-square-meter movie screen. Considering that movie theaters are not allowed in the country, this is actually pretty ironic. But hey, that’s Saudi Arabia for you: full of contradictions and paradoxes your head will start uncontrollably spinning. You’re welcome.

Bonus: Suzanne Seldess visited Mada’in Saleh in April, and she came back with some really nice pictures. Check them out.

  • We have no movie theaters, but that won’t stop young Saudis from making movies. BBC has a short reportage about these young men. I have met most of these guys who appear in this reportage, and got a chance to watch some of their work. They are talented, creative, and determined. Too bad that our government refuses to acknowledge their talent.

  • And speaking of Saudi talents, here’s that latest single from ReD CoasT, a band from Jeddah:

  • Surprise! Surprise! BAE Systems will plead guilty to offenses of false accounting to settle bribery allegations made over al-Yamamah arms deals. BAE will pay $400m but only in the US, and not in the UK where the SFO dropped their investigation into al-Yamamah due to a request by former prime minister Tony Blair.

Nothing Changed

In November 1979, Juhayman al-Otaibi and his fellow zealots occupied the Grand Mosque in Makkah. After a bloody siege that lasted for two weeks, they were eventually captured and shortly beheaded. Following this event, Saudi Arabia experienced a scary rise of conservatism and the social liberalization that had begun in the 60’s and 70’s was halted or even rolled back. Women were no longer allowed on national TV, and restrictions on their employment and participation in public life became so harsh.

It is July 2009, more than 900 suspects were charged with participating in terrorist attacks in the country over the past few years. In landmark trials, more than 330 people in 179 cases had been tried and one given the death sentence. While these trials are still in progress, several restrictions to a freer access to culture and entertainment have been put in place, including a ban on cinema and cancellation of the Jeddah Film Festival.

What a difference 30 years make?

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.