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memri
March 11, 2010 No.
595

Revival of Cinema Sparks Debate in Saudi Arabia

By: Y. Admon*

Saudi Arabia has recently seen a revival in the field of cinema after years of inactivity in this domain. For the first time in 30 years, the authorities have permitted to screen a Saudi film in the country; several film festivals have been held; and demands have been heard to build movie theatres, which currently do not exist in Saudi Arabia.[1]

The revival has been accompanied by a heated debate between those who support it and those who oppose it on the grounds that it involves activities prohibited by the shari'a, such as gender mixing and listening to music. In July 2009, a group of citizens submitted a petition to the Saudi Mufti, Sheikh 'Abd Al-'Aziz Al-Sheikh, demanding to prohibit the construction of cinemas in Saudi Arabia. In response, King 'Abdallah's deputy, Saudi Interior Minister Prince Naif bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz, officially banned their construction.[2] The ban led to the cancelling of the annual Jeddah film festival, which had been held in the city since 2006, and was slated for July 18, 2009.[3] Its organizers explained that Prince Naif's prohibition applied to all film screenings anywhere in the country.[4] However, despite the ban, the festival was held later, in February 2010, and included 28 films from 14 countries in Asia, among them Saudi Arabia itself.

This report will review the recent developments in the domain of cinema in Saudi Arabia, and the positions of its supporters and opponents.

1980 – Saudi Arabia Closes Improvised Movie Halls

In 1980, Saudi Arabia did have some improvised movie halls – most of them in the cities of Jeddah and Mecca – which screened Egyptian, Indian, and Turkish films, operating without government authorization.[5] However, in response to strong objections on the part of religious conservatives, the Saudi authorities closed them down. Circles critical of the Saudi regime interpreted this move as an attempt on its part to curry favor with the country's religious establishment.[6]

At a February 3, 2008 session of the Shura Council, then-information and culture minister Iyyad Madani submitted a request to open a movie theatre in Saudi Arabia, which was denied due to strong opposition, mainly on the part of Sheikh 'Abdallah bin Muni', an advisor to the king and a member of the Senior Clerics Council, the country's supreme religious authority. Bin Muni' stated that Madani's request was incompatible with Saudi Arabia's status in the Muslim world, and went so far as to accuse Madani of trying to Westernize the country, calling upon him to withdraw his request.[7]

It should be noted that a recent poll found that 90% of Saudis agree to the opening of movie halls in Saudi cities, as long as they screen films that are "realistic" and whose content does not contravene the values and customs of Islam.[8]

Revival of Cinema in Saudi Arabia

In the past three years, Saudi Arabia has seen several events that indicate a revival in the domain of cinema:

1. For the First Time in 30 Years – A Film Receives Official Endorsement

On June 6, 2009, after 30 years in which no films had been screened in the country, Saudi filmmakers and youth launched a publicity campaign for the Saudi-made film Menahi, calling on the public to attend the film's premiere and to support the opening of movie theatres in Saudi Arabia.[9] The movie – a comedy about a young Saudi Bedouin who moves to the city – was produced by Rotana Studios, owned by Saudi Prince Walid bin Tallal, who is the King's nephew and a prominent businessman. The authorities permitted its viewing to men, and to boys and girls up to the age of ten, but not to women, in order to avoid gender mixing in the theatre.[10] The film gained wide popularity and was shown in Riyadh, Jeddah, and Taif. Some saw this step as part of King 'Abdallah's inclination to promote openness in Saudi Arabia, including in the cultural scene.[11]

2. Film Festivals in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia's first film festival took place in July 2006, in Jeddah, under the title The Jeddah Visual Shows Festival. It included only sixteen movies, eight of them from Saudi Arabia.[12] The festival, financed by the Rotana company, was also held in 2007 and 2008, featuring both local and foreign films.[13]

In May 2008, the Saudi Association for Culture and Art held a five-day competition of Saudi films, which was regarded as the first government-sponsored film festival in the country. The participants included women Saudi screenwriters and directors, who won awards.[14] Information and culture minister Iyyad Madani declared the competition a success and stressed its importance, especially in light of the Saudi conservatives' opposition to cinema. He added that his ministry would promote cinema in Saudi Arabia, and stressed the importance of cultivating Saudi filmmakers.[15]

In April-May 2009, an EU-sponsored festival of European movies was held in Riyadh. It included 12 films, and was meant to be a prelude to the 2009 Jeddah film festival, which was canceled due to the ban on opening cinemas.[16] The latter festival was eventually held in February 2010 despite the ban, with some 30 movies from 14 Asian countries, including Saudi Arabia (which presented five films), India, Japan, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Pakistan, China, Thailand, Singapore, Korea, and Borneo.[17]

Opponents of Cinema in Saudi Arabia: Going to the Movies Is against the Shari'a

The revival of cinema in Saudi Arabia, and especially the screening of the film Menahi, evoked protest from the country's clerics, who issued fatwas against watching films on the grounds that this leads to forbidden activities, such as the free mixing of men and women, and listening to music. Some even claimed that the May 2009 earthquakes in western Saudi Arabia had been brought about by the screening of Menahi.[18]

In a fatwa posted on www.islamlight.net, Saudi cleric Sheikh Dr. Yousuf Al-Ahmad called on the Saudi authorities to ban cinema, since it is "an effort by hypocrites to implement the program of Westernization, to corrupt society, and to distance it from Allah's laws." Al-Ahmad also called to bring charges against Prince Tallal and against the owners of the Saudi TV channel MBC, on the grounds that they are just as dangerous as drug traffickers.[19]

The then-chief of the religious police, Ibrahim Al-Ghaith, likewise objected to Menahi and to the call to open movie halls in Saudi Arabia, claiming that cinema is "evil and corrupting." He complained that Menahi had first been screened without consulting the religious police.[20] At an earlier occasion, he denied that he was against cinema, saying that it could have positive sides as long as it served Allah's will. He stressed, however, that he objected to the use made of cinema to corrupt society.[21]

Citizens opposed to the showing of films tried to disrupt the screening of Menahi at the King Fahd Cultural Center in Riyadh, which was attended by 300 people. According to a report, 40 young men attempted to break into the premises and to prevent people from watching the movie, but were stopped by the security guards.[22] Objections also came from Jeddah residents who submitted a petition to King 'Abdallah and interior minister Prince Naif demanding to stop the showing of the film.[23] Similar objections were made in the city of Abha, where the Tourism Development Committee shut the film down after only three screenings.[24]

Saudi Columnists in Praise of Cinema

The conflict surrounding Menahi prompted numerous reactions from Saudi columnists who supported the showing of films and condemned the conservatives' opposition.

1. Cinema Can Benefit Saudi Society

Liberal poet and columnist Halima Muzaffar wrote in the Saudi daily Al-Watan: "Cinema is one of the most important and mature forms of contemporary culture and art forms... [Cinema] a moral [field of] human creativity, and the Saudis have the right to share in it, view it, and enjoy its benefits.

"[The opening of movie theatres in Saudi Arabia] will create a large number of jobs for our young people. [Films] will also strengthen family ties and values, as families go to watch films together. [Think] how we will benefit, as a society, if we provide our youth with a supervised place [of recreation], thus keeping them away from shady establishments... [Think] how we will profit when our daughters have a place to spend their time, instead of hanging out in malls and shopping centers… I do not know how long we will [continue] to oppose [cinema] and lag behind in our cultural [development]. Those who object [to cinema] because they consider it bad must realize that cinema is not a scary demon…"[25]

2. There Can Be No Film Industry without Movie Theatres

Columnist Raja Al-Mutairi wrote in the daily Al-Riyadh: "What is currently happening [in Saudi Arabia] is the total collapse of obsolete and erroneous beliefs that had taken root for 30 years, so much so that we deemed them correct and irrefutable. However, Menahi – as an event, not a film – effectively annihilated these [beliefs] and broke the emotional barrier that [prevented the Saudi] citizen from [demanding] his right to entertainment. Today, no one dares to oppose movie theatres anymore on the grounds that they are corrupting, or for other reasons that are no longer convincing. We have held public movie screenings, and the world did not turn upside down, nor did any of our fears materialize. So what does the [dissenting] minority still have [to say]?

"Menahi made history by paving the way to the return of movie halls, which were closed for a long time. Movie halls are essential for the establishment of a real movie industry, since they are the only way to [make movies profitable], which will prompt businessmen to risk [investing] in the production of Saudi films. Moreover, [movie theatres] form the basic foundation of a real film culture that cultivates filmmakers, including directors, screenwriters, and actors. Without movie theatres, all our talk about Saudi cinema and art will become nothing but empty words…"[26]

Columnist 'Abdallah Al-Qabi' wrote: "The opening of movie theatres is important in that it will end incidents of extremism, instill openness towards the other, introduce [the public] to art, and create investment opportunities and jobs for unemployed youth… We hope to view a hundred Saudi films – dramas, documentaries, or animation – and why not? Saudi productions won prizes at recent Arab film festivals… Open the windows, and let us foster Saudi distinctiveness. Our youth is creative, and not all films arouse [carnal] instincts – Menahi is a good example of this. Will [Prince] Walid bin Tallal fulfill our dream by continuing [his enterprise]? We hope that he will."[27]

3. Standing in the Way of Cinema Is a Crime

Other columnists likewise condemned the attacks on Menahi and demanded to punish those who had disrupted the screenings. Saudi columnist 'Abdallah bin Bakhit wrote in Al-Riyadh: "It is surprising that sensible people in this country lie in wait for any event related to art or culture in order to oppose or condemn it. At the same time, not one of them objects to the low status of women or speaks against fatwas [that force couples to divorce on grounds of] incompatible family status.[28] We see [these extremists] only at the [Riyadh annual international] book fair, where they walk around condemning [the event]. In culture clubs, they take front row seats [just] in order to follow the event and censure it. If we watch them closely, we will discover they are preoccupied with trivial matters and disregard the important ones…"[29]

Saudi columnist Khaled Al-Ghanami wrote in a similar vein in Al-Watan: "When the behavior [of the extremists] goes beyond preaching and takes the form of attempts to prevent people by force [from watching movies], it constitutes a crime that merits punishment by the legal [system]… The clerics whom those young people obey must take a clear and unambiguous stance that will convey to them society's message: the Americans set foot on the moon 40 years ago, and we are still waiting to watch Menahi without fear."[30]

*Y. Admon is a research fellow at MEMRI.

Endnotes:


[1] www.islamonline.net, July 18, 2009. The revival of cinema in Saudi Arabia is part of a cultural resurgence encouraged by King 'Abdallah. In the past few years, culture festivals have been held; in March 2009 Saudi Arabia marked International Theatre Day for the first time; and poetry readings with liberal poet and columnist Halima Muzaffar have been held despite the opposition of Muslim extremists (See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 2569, "Extremists in Saudi Arabia Set Fire to Culture Club to Prevent Woman Poet's Public Appearance," October 6, 2009, Extremists in Saudi Arabia Set Fire to Culture Club to Prevent Woman Poet's Public Appearance). The revival has been accompanied by an increase in public interest in cultural issues. Simultaneously, however, extremists have increased their opposition to cultural activities.

[2] www.islammemo.cc, July 13, 2009.

[3] Al-Wiam (Saudi Arabia), July 13, 2009.

[4] www.islamonline.net, July 18, 2009.

[5] According to another source, such movie halls had operated in the country since the 60s. www.islamonline.net, April 15, 2008.

[6] www.islamonline.net, May 28, 2008.

[7] www.islamonline.net, May 28, 2008.

[8] www.alarabiya.net, February 8, 2009.

[9] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), June 7, 2009.

[10] Menahi was first screened unofficially and without a title in December 2008 in Jeddah, during the 'Id Al-Adha vacation. Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), December 20, 2008.

[11] Al-Wiam (Saudi Arabia), July 13, 2009; http://news.bbc.co.uk, June 7, 2009.

[12] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), July 15, 2006.

[13] Al-Madina (Saudi Arabia), June 19, 2009.

[14] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 26, 2008.

[15] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), May 22, 2008.

[16] www.elaph.com, April 25, 2009.

[17] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), February 15, 2010. In should be noted that the revival of cinema in Saudi Arabia is also manifest in a new custom: in order to attract shoppers, some Jeddah malls have installed large screens on which children's cartoons, documentaries and football matches are shown. The malls make sure that the content shown is inoffensive to conservative viewers. Okaz (Saudi Arabia), June 4, 2009.

[18] www.elaph.com, June 10, 2009; http://news.bbc.co.uk, June 7, 2009; www.islamonline.net, May 28, 2008.

[19] www.islamlight.net, February 28, 2009.

[20] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), December 20, 2008; www.alarabiya.net, December 20, 2008.

[21] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), December 19, 2008; Okaz (Saudi Arabia), December 21, 2008.

[22] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), June 12, 2009.

[23] www.islamlight.net, April 5, 2009.

[24] Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), July 3, 2009.

[25] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), June 3, 2009.

[26] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), June 7, 2009.

[27] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), June 10, 2009.

[28] This is a reference to fatwas mandating divorce for a woman whose family status is higher than her husband's. See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 349, "Public Debate in Saudi Arabia over Forcing Divorce When Status of Wife's Family Is Superior to That of Husband's Family," April 27, 2007, http://www.memri.org/bin/articles.cgi?Page=countries&Area=saudiarabia&ID=IA34907.

[29] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), June 10, 2009.

[30] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), June 11, 2009.