Saudis Indulge Long-Banned Passion for Silver Screen

JEDDAH ~ They howled, clapped and ate popcorn – a normal cinema scene elsewhere, but revolutionary in Saudi Arabia, where films have not played publicly for decades.

Massive lines snaked out from the King Abdul Aziz Cultural Centre as Jeddah residents queued up to see the first feature film open to the public for 30 years, hoping the event heralded a big change in the ultra-conservative kingdom’s stunted cultural scene.

In what took hush-hush negotiations with senior political officials and the strict religious police, the Red Sea port of Jeddah and the nearby city of Taif allowed the Rotana entertainment group, owned by powerful Saudi tycoon Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, to show its new comedy Manahi for nine days.

The result was overwhelming, the 1,200-seat hall hardly meeting the demand for the 15-riyal (US$4) tickets for each screening.

“The hall was filled up to the very last seat during the two shows scheduled each day, forcing us to add a third show after midnight,” organiser Mamdouh Salem said.

Decades ago film lovers in Saudi Arabia would crowd into clubs and halls to watch the same movies enjoyed throughout the Arab world.

But in the 1970s, clerics of the ultra-conservative Wahhabist version of Islam which is practiced in the country cracked down and banned cinemas as having a corrupting influence on society.

The taboo has been broken somewhat in recent years, with videos and satellite television, and movies shown surreptitiously at night in popular coffee shops.

But to see a movie in a real theatre, Saudis still have to travel to neighboring countries.

Putting on the film in Jeddah, a progressive city compared to the capital Riyadh, took the support of Prince Khalid al-Faisal, the powerful governor of the province of Mecca, himself a poet and supporter of the arts.

The local religious police, from the feared Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, inspected the hall ahead of the screenings to ensure that women and men would be separated, following Saudi Arabia’s strict rules of segregation between the sexes.

Salem said it was an adventure to get Manahi shown in a place where there are no real cinemas, adding that it was exciting to see the audience’s thirst for movies.

“This is a hall with 1,200 seats. It was not built for movies, and the projector is not made for 35mm films,” he said.

With women sitting apart in the balcony, and men and boys on the ground floor below them, the hall echoed with raucous laughter as they took in the story of the misadventures of a Saudi farmer who finds himself in Dubai.

On hand for the opening, Manahi star Fayez Malki said he was pleased at the turnout.

“This encourages me to play in more Saudi films and I plan to make a new one with Rotana,” he said.

“It is an honor to have my name associated with the first Saudi film shown in public here.”

Khaled al-Amri, who brought his children to see Manahi, said he slakes his passion for film on trips to Cairo and Dubai.

Roua Mohammed, an interior designer, said she visits Cairo three times a year to check out the latest releases in the theatres.

“Why can’t they be shown here?” she asked.

Despite the success in Jeddah, it was not yet clear whether Rotana would be able to show Manahi in Riyadh, where the religious police are much tougher and government officials more conservative.

As the shows drew to a close, religious police chief Sheikh Ibrahim al-Gaith branded movies “an absolute evil.”

But on Saturday he eased his stance, allowing that some films might be appropriate.

“I did not say that we reject all cinema,” Sheikh Gaith said.

“A movie could possibly be acceptable if it serves good and is suitable under Islam, but I said that we were not consulted during the organization of these movie showings.”

And while a senior government official said that “it was not the right time yet” to toss out controls on movies, some property developers appear ahead of the game: their newly built malls seem already set up to install cinemas, if and when the time comes.

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