Donna Abu-Nasr/AP
Atef al-Ghanem, head of the first Saudi
Film festival's cultural committee

Saudi Arabia Rethinking Cinema Ban

December 22, 2008 05:31 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
After unprecedented and hugely successful public showings of a feature movie last week, a prominent Saudi cleric says some movies may be “acceptable.”

Public Movie Screenings May Make a Comeback

The public showings of a locally produced comedy have prompted influential cleric Sheikh Ibrahim al-Gaith, head of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, to announce that “a movie could possibly be acceptable if it serves good and is suitable under Islam,” even after denouncing the film several days ago.

“Manahi,” the story of a Bedouin man who becomes rich and moves to Dubai, starring popular new comedian Fayez al-Maliki, was shown in Jeddah last week. It was approved by provincial authorities and produced by the Rotana Studios entertainment group controlled by billionaire tycoon Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, whose ties to royalty are being seen as the reason why the screenings were allowed.

Public turnout for the film was so successful that the movie was shown eight times a day over 10 days, but the screenings attracted fierce criticism from conservatives, according to Reuters. “Our position on this is clear—ban it. That is because cinema is evil and we do not need it. We have enough evil already,” Gaith had said just a few days ago, before issuing a more positive statement. “I did not say that we reject all cinema, but I said that we were not consulted during the organization of these movie showings,” he later said about his earlier statements, according to the Telegraph.

The showings are seen as part of an overall effort by reform-minded King Abdullah to relax Islamic laws in the restrictive society, and are raising hopes that Saudi Arabia will allow public cinemas in the future, in a country where citizens can only watch films at home, or travel to cinemas in neighboring countries. Decades ago, the country was home to several public movie theaters in major cities, but they started to wane with the rise of Islamic extremism and by the 1970s, had disappeared besides there being no official ban.
The screening of “Manahi” is actually the second showing of a Saudi film in the past year, after the public commercial release of “Sabah al Lail” in October 2007, reports Business Intelligence Middle East.

Despite the opposition, Rotana Studios said in a statement Tuesday that it is looking to produce and screen more Saudi movies in the future.

“I am correcting a big mistake, that is all,” al Waleed said to The New York Times in 2006 before the launch of Rotana’s first movie. “I want to tell Arab youth you deserve to be entertained, you have the right to watch movies, you have the right to listen to music. … There is nothing in Islam—and I’ve researched this thoroughly—not one iota that says you can’t have movies. So what I am doing right now is causing change,” al Waleed said, according to Business Intelligence Middle East.

Opinion & Analysis: "Cinema’s rebirth"

The Saudi Gazette points out that interest in movies has increased in recent years, and social activists and newspaper columnists have been lobbying for the re-establishing of public theaters. Video stores where people can rent films are common, newspapers have entire sections devoted to the arts and local filmmaking companies are starting to produce films starring Saudi actors.

“Things have dramatically changed,” The Gazette reports. “The whole country is changing and the progressive culture of the young generation is driving the wheel of change so assiduously toward much more cultural openness and diversity. Several private satellite TV stations are broadcasting Western movies, programs and soap operas. Interest in movie culture has seen youth flocking to neighboring countries to watch a newly-released movie.”

Related Topics: Saudi Arabian censorship

Saudi religious authorities’ restrictions on public life go far beyond preventing public film screenings. In September, religious authorities issued a fatwa against celebrating birthdays, saying that they are not allowed under Islam.

The country’s authorities also restrict the press, the Internet and video games.

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