July 13, 2006

First Saudi film festival opens despite clerics

By Andrew Hammond

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - The first Saudi Arabian
film festival opened this week, but the silver screen remains
so controversial in the conservative kingdom that the word
"cinema" does not even appear in the title.

"The Jeddah Visual Show Festival" kicked off on Wednesday
night with two hours of home-grown short films. The public can
see the films three times a week for a month.

Public movie screenings are taboo in Saudi Arabia, where
puritanical scholars believe any depiction of the human form is
forbidden in Islam and see the U.S.-dominated film industry as
an immoral force driven by sex and violence.

Cinema halls could also allow mixing of unrelated young men
and women, considered a sin by Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi religious
establishment. The kingdom is the birthplace of Islam.

"The Ministry of Information and Culture said let's not
call it cinema, that could imply God knows what -- let's say
'visual shows'," director Mishael al-Enazi told a news

"We hope that showing these short films will lead to more
acceptance of cinema."

Despite the clerical reservations, several Saudis have
started directing movies and entertainment firm Rotana, owned
by billionaire Saudi royal Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, has
started producing full-length films.

Last year the authorities allowed public screenings of
children's cartoons, the first time films were shown since the
1970s when the kingdom's powerful religious establishment took
a position against the art form.

"The films shown in this festival do not conflict with the
customs and traditions of Saudi and they deal with national
issues such as terrorism and daily life in Saudi Arabia and the
Gulf," an official notice published in Saudi papers said.

The films shown deal with bold themes such as domestic
violence, drugs and religious extremism. Saudi television
carries some dramas covering the same issues, but they are
mostly made in Kuwait with Kuwaiti actors.

Saudi film critics in the audience welcomed the festival
but were harsh about the offerings, saying they were

"So there were mistakes, but if we are going to criticize
then let's do the same for Egyptian, Syrian, Lebanese or
American films too," organiser Mohammad Sallam said in defense.
"Saudis are going to show they can make good films too."