Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Religious conservatives fail Saudi filmmakers

Saudi Arabia’s Riyadh Mayor Prince Abdul Aziz Bin Ayyaf Al-Migrin told the Arabic-language Asharq Al-Awsat recently that he is considering opening cinemas in the city. This could be a major announcement since the Kingdom has no cinemas, but these kinds of pronouncements have come and gone with regularity since 2005 and nothing has come of it.

It’s apparent to Al-Migrin, though, that the time is right for cinemas to debut in Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom’s burgeoning film industry demands it. And last summer, an estimated 230,000 Saudis went to the United Arab Emirates to watch theatrical releases, according to the newspaper. That’s money in the pockets of western, not Saudi, filmmakers.

Contrary to myth, cinemas are not illegal nor are they banned in Saudi Arabia. But in the gray world that is Saudi society, people take their chances with religious conservatives. Municipalities and the Ministry of Commerce are generally willing to approve freestanding cinemas, or at least megamalls that include cinemas.

The catch is cinema owners are responsible for dealing with the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. The mutaween and has no legal authority to close businesses, but they display little subtlety in applying pressure to business owners they believe subvert Saudi morality. Just consider the occasional book fair or literary club discussion workshops where these guys toss around chairs, shout insults and generally intimidate people who want to talk about a good book. Given such boorish behavior, no potential cinema owner is willing to challenge the religious establishment.

That hasn’t stopped the construction of cinemas. Virtually every mall built in the Kingdom since 2005 features specific accommodations for a cinema. Mall owners are simply waiting for the day that a theater owner will take the plunge.

It’s a sad fact the religious establishment has no interest in helping Saudi youth make constructive use of their time. Saudi Arabia is experiencing at least 10 percent unemployment with many guys and girls under the age of 30 struggling to find work. It’s disgusting that they should be shut out of the opportunity to engage in a passion that could lead to a rewarding career. It’s this shortsightedness that drives Saudis to other countries to find their way in the world. When it comes to the arts, Saudi youth will get no help from the government or religious conservatives.

Saudi authorities acknowledge there is no religious reason to prevent theaters from opening. The issue of gender mixing is not a concern since it’s easy to segregate cinemas for families and single men. Religious authorities, however, claim that western films import moral values not compatible with Islam. Saudi filmmakers have undermined that argument by insisting on telling compelling Saudi stories.

Undeterred by the naysayers is the Talashi Films Group, a loose organization of young Saudi filmmakers who have taken their movies to a number of foreign film festivals. But I’m sure they prefer to practice their art in their own country.

According to their Facebook page, the group organized in 2008 to share “a passion for cinema and collaborating to contribute to the Saudi film scene by producing a number of quality films each year.” The group includes Fahad Alestaa, Mohammad Aldhahri, Abdulmohsen Al-Dabaan, Mohammed Al-Hamoud, Turki Al-Rwaita, Mohammed Al Khalif, Hussam Alhulwah, Abdulamusin Almutairi and Nawaf Al-Muhanna.

The group had five entries screened last fall at the Arab Film Festival in San Francisco. The Arab Film Festival has been screening Saudi films since 2007. Talashi members screened their work last year at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival and Dubai’s Gulf Film Festival. Last November two of their films were screened at the International Film Festival at Bratislava, Slovakia.

The theme here, of course, is their films get play anywhere except Saudi Arabia. For a country intent on weaning itself from oil revenue, there seems to be a poor grasp of what other industries have to offer.

The door is not completely closed to Saudi filmmakers. The Asian Consuls General Club is sponsoring its 4th annual Asian Film Festival in Jeddah through Feb. 28 with two Saudi films by Abdullah Al-Muhaisin and Abdullah Al-Eyaf. But the more prominent Jeddah Film Festival, which ran three consecutive years, was abruptly cancelled in 2009 without explanation. More than 70 films, with many showcasing Saudi Arabia’s best filmmakers, were never seen. There was no 2010 Jeddah Film Festival.

There are a handful of Saudis in positions of authority that recognize the necessity of establishing a filmmaking presence in the Kingdom. Prince Khalid Al-Faisal, the governor of the Makkah region, for example, has a long history of supporting film festivals. It takes only one Saudi with clout and one entrepreneur with a vision to build a cinema to move against the illogical argument of conservatives that there is no place in Saudi Arabia for movies.

Imagine the possibilities of Saudis watching Saudi-produced stories that accurately reflect their lives and not some foreigner’s idea of whom we are. You would think some people would recognize the benefits of this approach, but ignorance is blind.