Filmmaker in the land of no cinema

Movie theatres are banned and films viewed as 'evil' in Saudi Arabia because it is claimed they distract people from religion. Directors want to change this perception.

The Saudi film-maker Abdulmuhsen al Mutairi, left, with his lead actor, Ali al Bahlol, filming a scene for al Mutairi's new short film, A Man Between Two Gangs and a Grave.
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RIYADH // The volunteer film crew and actors straggled into the borrowed apartment over an hour or so. There were no storyboards. No costumes. And just one prop: a candle. Abdulmuhsen al Mutairi lashed his microphone to a boom with duct tape and then turned to his cast - two nervous teens - with some directing advice. "OK, try to give a bit more feeling," he said, reciting their lines to demonstrate what he wanted. "Mara thania!" (Do it again!)

It may be low-end and no-budget, but there is no lack of passion in the work of al Mutairi, one of a growing crop of talented and determined young Saudi film-makers. "I don't expect any money from this film, I just need to show it to an audience… That's the energy, the audience," al Mutairi, 29, said of his latest production. "As an artist, you have to be passionate to continue working in this very difficult business."

Indeed, passion is a requisite for the "difficult business" of movie-making in Saudi Arabia because it is a profession strewn with obstacles. This is a land with no cinemas, which are regarded as places of possible sin by the kingdom's influential religious establishment. In the clerics' austere version of Islam, these dark confines might allow boys and girls to mix, which is illegal. Films themselves are considered "evil" because they distract people from religion and spread "corruption", which usually means something to do with sex.

"We are a hundred years behind," said another film-maker, Mohammad Aldhahri. "I don't think there is any other country in the world that doesn't have cinema [even though] it's part of contemporary culture. It's not something that we can just ignore." After King Saud University shut down its drama department in 2000, the kingdom was left with no film schools or institutes. Al Mutairi said he had to buy some of his production equipment - microphone, boom, headphone - on the internet because they are not sold here.

Outdoor shoots are huge hassles with actors of both genders. Invariably, the religious police arrive and shut down filming, sometimes arresting everyone, despite a five-year-old royal order allowing photography and filming anywhere in the kingdom unless expressly forbidden by posted signs, al Mutairi said. "They stop us all the time, even if we don't have women." The absence of cinemas means that Saudi film-makers depend on private home screenings, or the rare film festival, to show their works. But festivals are never a sure thing, as demonstrated a year ago with the Jeddah Film Festival. After three years of increasing success, it was cancelled by the ministry of interior on the eve of its fourth annual opening.

"It was a shock," said the festival organiser, Mamdouh Salem, who had spent six months putting the event together. Of the 106 films scheduled to be shown, he said, 48 were Saudi-made. Despite the restrictive environment, an indigenous film-making scene is taking shape. It is nurtured by cinephiles like al Mutairi, whose favourite director is Quentin Tarantino and who once flew to New Zealand to see a film festival.

Al Mutairi is a founding member of "Talashi," or "Fade-out", a group of young film-makers formed to support each other's projects. Their "clubhouse" is a vacant apartment where they stash movie-making equipment and hold brainstorming sessions. Their short films, ranging from three minutes to 30 minutes, have tackled sensitive subjects, including discrimination against women, child sexual abuse, the lack of choice in marriage partners, and the sometimes stifling conformity of Saudi society.

They also harness humour to make a point. According to Local Time is a short by Mohammed al Khalif, a Talashi member, about trying to buy food or petrol during prayer time when all shops shut down, a predicament familiar to anyone living in the kingdom. Al Mutairi, whose recent shoot was for his sixth film, which he describes as "a comedy crime story", said the Talashi network is vital because even family members do not understand what he and others are doing. "They laugh at you," he said. "They say, 'You have to get a real job'."

Marriam Mossalli, a producer and writer in Jeddah, said one bright spot is the internet, which gives Saudi film-makers access to an international audience. Another important incubator of Saudi talent and recognition is film festivals in neighbouring Dubai and Abu Dhabi. These events offer Saudis "a platform to showcase their talent", Mossalli wrote in an e-mail. "We have to go there in order to be recognised instead of being recognised at home."

She said she hopes that the foreign accolades will cause Saudi society "to reassess the situation and they'll say, 'Well, maybe we should bring this talent back here and start giving them their freedom'," she said. There is a small sign of that, perhaps, in a recent announcement that the Saudi information minister, Abdel Aziz al Khoja, has ordered Saudi state television to buy and broadcast Saudi-made short films.

Attempts to reach Mr al Khoja's spokesman to get more details on the plan were unsuccessful and some Saudi film-makers like Fahad Alestaa were sceptical that it will come to much. "We're used to promises," he said. The Jeddah festival organiser, Mr Salem, said that even if that deal falls through, he has made an arrangement with satellite channel Rotana TV to broadcast the 48 Saudi-made films that had been set for screening at last year's aborted festival.

Rotana is owned by Prince Al Waleed bin Talal, a nephew of the king, and one of the world's richest men. Known for his progressive views, he challenged religious conservatives last year, predicting that "films and movie theatres will come inevitably" to the kingdom. But for now, young film-makers thrive mostly on their passion for movies. "If you believe in art, you can make something, and in the beginning you will make very low, medium-quality work," al Mutairi said. "But if you continue to learn from your mistakes and the reviews of your audience, you will have something."

Mr Salem also is not giving up. Despite the fiasco of last year's cancelled festival, he has organised a week of live performances by an all-male cast of Arab comedians this month during which he plans to sneak in a tribute to his beloved movies. Before each performance, he said, he will screen an animated cartoon.