Saudi Cinema Returns After Three Decades
By Art & Culture Team
RIYADH ( News Agencies) - Cinema has made a low-key return to Saudi Arabia after a three decade absence but a sharp reaction by the religious police chief shows efforts to relax Saudi's strict Islamic laws face tough opposition.
A locally produced comedy, Menahi, premiered in two cultural centers in Jeddah and Taif this month before mixed-gender audiences, a taboo in Saudi Arabia whose strict Islamic rules ban unrelated men and women from mixing.
Menahi stars new comedy sensation Fayez al-Maliki as a naive Bedouin entangled in a get-rich-quickly scheme in Dubai, the region's tourism and trade hub where lifestyle is far less restricted.
Turnout for the movie, produced by billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal's media company Rotana, was so big the film had to be played eight times a day over a 10-day period, the organizers said.
It had to be stopped in Taif due to overcrowding in the hall, Rotana spokesman Ibrahim Badi said, Reuters reported on Saturday.
Showing the film was the latest attempt to introduce reforms by King Abdullah, who has said the world's largest oil exporter cannot stand still while the world changes around it.
Political analysts say Alwaleed could not have gone ahead without the blessing of royals with key decision-making roles.
"We have obtained permission from the Information Ministry and from the governorate of Mecca to show the movie in Jeddah and Taif," Badi said. The province of Mecca is governed by Prince Khaled al-Faisal, a pro-reform son of late King Faisal.
Badi could not immediately say if Rotana intended to show the movie in other provinces of the kingdom.
While the kingdom's Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul-Aziz Al al-Shaikh has not commented on the issue, the head of Saudi Arabia's religious police condemned cinemas as a pernicious influence.
Sheikh Ibrahim al-Gaith, head of the feared Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice says that "movie could possibly be acceptable if it serves good and is suitable under Islam," Sheikh Gaith said.
Gaith pulled back from comments he made two days earlier branding movies "an absolute evil" in the wake of screenings in the Red Sea port city.
"I did not say that we reject all cinema, but I said that we were not consulted during the organisation of these movie showings," he explained, AFP reported on Sunday.
Before the first projection of the film, local religious police inspected the facility, a 1,200 seat conference hall, to make sure that men and women would remain separated, adhering to the country's strict laws on separation of unrelated members of the opposite sexes.
For the three showings daily, women sat in the balcony of the hall while men and boys were on the ground floor.
Saudi Arabia had some movie theatres in the 1970s but the conservative clerical establishment managed to snuff out the industry. Saudi film buffs had to travel to neighbours like Bahrain to see movies in cinemas but a new generation of young Saudis has begun making films in recent years.