Films Finding a Foothold in Saudi Arabia

Cinema and theaters are widely banned in Saudi Arabia. But small groups of film lovers are forming clubs to screen films in Riyadh and eastern Saudi Arabia, including some made by young Saudis eager to create a film industry.

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Last year, moviegoers in Cannes viewed what was billed as the first feature film from Saudi Arabia, a rarity in a country that bans cinemas and theatres. 2006 also saw the first Saudi film festival in Jeddah, another sign that the strict Muslim kingdom is opening up ever so slightly.

Now, small groups of film lovers in the kingdom are forming clubs to screen films, including more films produced by young Saudis eager to create a film industry. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Riyadh.

PETER KENYON: The bare concrete room with cushions along the walls would never be mistaken for a movie palace. And the two short films screened on a recent evening wouldn't be taken for professional efforts. But the audience, about 15 men, ranging from beardless youths to gray-haired gentlemen, falls into rapt silence as Saudi amateur filmmaker Abdullah Ayev(ph) starts his spare black and white short entitled "Affrain"(ph).

From the first scene, a roughly two-minute shot of an unidentified man lying on a bed breathing heavily and staring at a framed photograph, it's clear that Ayev would be aiming for an art house cinema, if such a thing existed here, with this psychological drama about someone all but immobilized by his memories.

Ayev, a 29-year-old mechanical engineer for the Saudi oil firm Aramco, may seem an unlikely movie pioneer. But after a few minutes of conversation, he's eagerly discussing some of his favorite directors - Welles, Bergman, Kurosawa, Tarkovsky. Ayev says thanks to technology, there are plenty of film lovers in this land without theatres.

Mr. ABDULLAH AYEV (Mechanical Engineer): The Saudi be able to watch videos. The DVD market in Saudi Arabia is one of the biggest in the area. They for you services are booked almost by the soldiers only. So it's not a strange thing for Saudis to love movies.

KENYON: Another young Saudi director favors the action and special effects of modern movie and television entertainment. Twenty-four-year-old Samir Arev(ph), a computer engineer by day, brought his short film "The Strain" to the film club meeting. It's a fast-paced science fiction morality tale about a devout Saudi man who loses his wife and daughter to a reckless driver and becomes a murderous enforcer of the speed limit.

Arev wants to enter his film in a festival in the neighboring United Arab Emirates. But Saudi Arabia's near total lack of filmmaking infrastructure presents certain problems. He's searching for original music, for instance, to replace the excerpts he borrowed from an American soundtrack to show the film for the club.

Not everyone is excited about the new opportunities to see films in Saudi Arabia. At a film club in the eastern city of Damman recently, the screening of an Iranian film had to be cancelled after an angry crowd threatened to disrupt the event. The club viewed the documentary "March of the Penguins" instead.

Perhaps displaying the optimism of youth, Arev says he doesn't think the Saudi tendency to ban anything new and cultural will prevail this time.

Mr. SAMIR AREV (Computer Engineer): Maybe some of the people who don't like it because maybe they will have some concepts in the movie that they don't like. But I think it's welcome. And a lot of people in the new generation, they want to see a movie like this.

KENYON: There are other signs of a budding cultural life in Saudi Arabia. The Riyadh Literary Club recently opened its doors to women for the first time. And other arts groups are springing up around the kingdom. Arab News editor Halled Al-Mayina(ph), who recalls going to a theater to watch "Goldfinger" with his parents when he was young, wonders if these film clubs are a sign that today's children will get their chance.

Mr. HALLED AL-MAYINA (Arab News): I think it's an experiment. I think, you see, we are trying to tread slowly. We are on thin ice and we want to go and see where our safe moorings are. And I think it's a good sign. And at the same time, it's also a feeler that the ministry of information, which regards such activities, is now loosening its control.

KENYON: Whether the government is prepared to permit these film clubs to grow is by no means certain. But amateur director Abdullah Ayev sees only opportunities ahead.

Mr. AYEV: I always say that cinema is a cultural foundation for any civilization. Saudi Arabia is a new, undiscovered land for others, our own story, our own traditions. So I would say, yes, I believe the Saudi cinema's coming, and the world, watch out.

KENYON: Some reformers say Ayev may be overly optimistic. But they're watching the government's reaction to these film lovers carefully and with a certain amount of hope.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Riyadh.

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