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Saudi Arabia recently hosted a film festival, showing public cinema for the first time in 30 years. Is the Kingdom changing?
December 22, 2008 2:12 by Aarti Nagraj
The Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) held between December 11 and 18 this year played host to stars including Brendan Fraser, Salma Hayek and Nicholas Cage, and also screened 180 films – including 19 world premieres – from 66 countries.
Meanwhile, in neighboring Saudi Arabia, another film festival was held during the same period; from December 10-18 in Jeddah and Taif. The event may not have attracted any Hollywood stars, but it marked a major milestone for the Kingdom: the return of public cinema after 30 years.
According to reports, “Menahi,” a film produced by Prince Alwaleed bin Talal’s media company Rotana, attracted such large crowds that the film had to be played eight times a day over the 10-day period. The movie portrays the comic escapades of a naive farmer.
Three years back, the kingdom opened a public cinema hall in Riyadh during the Eid holidays, but it only screened cartoon films for women and children. Abdullah Dahlan, a writer, told Arab News at the time that he had not come across any law that bans the running of cinemas in the Kingdom. He said cinemas existed in the country more than 50 years ago, but they have now disappeared due to religious extremism.
A day after the recent cinema festival ended, Ibrahim al-Ghaith, the head of the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice was quoted as saying “Our position on [cinema] is clear – ban it. That is because cinema is evil and we do not need it. We have enough evil already.” However, Reuters reports that he has now retracted his statement, saying, “We are not against having cinema if it shows the good and does not violate Islamic law.”
In August this year, a Saudi cleric said that that mice were Satan’s soldiers and that, “according to Islamic law, Mickey Mouse should be killed in all cases.” However, after the news caught international attention, he clarified his stand, saying, “I never issued a fatwa about the killing of Mickey Mouse […] I mentioned Mickey Mouse, or that Jerry, by way of example only.”
While a 10-day festival alone does not indicate a growing liberal trend in Saudi Arabia, the fact that clerics are now clarifying and changing their stands on these issues certainly does. King Abdullah has said that his country cannot stand still while the world changes around it. Has the reform process begun?