Coming Soon, Scorsese of Arabia

By Abdullah Al-Eyaf
Sunday, May 18, 2008

AL-KHOBAR, Saudi Arabia

Just over a decade ago, when I was 20, I found the love of my life: movies. I used to rent four videos at a time and then live with the characters, in their worlds, for days. Once, I watched eight films in a single sitting.

As a contributor to Cinemac.net, a Web site for movie buffs here in Saudi Arabia, I typed away about masterpieces such as "Citizen Kane," "Raging Bull" and "Amadeus" and shone the Saudi spotlight on directors including Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog and Akira Kurosawa. I even participated in silly arguments about the best actor of all time: Is it Marlon Brando? Al Pacino? Robert De Niro? Jack Nicholson? Or even Tom Hanks, one of my favorites? Several years later, a local newspaper hired me as a film critic. Getting paid to write about movies? "Pinch me," I wanted to tell my editor. "I must be dreaming."

You might be surprised to learn, then, that I didn't set foot in a movie theater until I was 25 years old. That's because Saudi Arabia has banned the public screening of films since the early 1980s. But ordinary Saudis, still bewitched by the silver screen, are quietly directing a scene change.

I'm lucky because I live in eastern Saudi Arabia, not far from Bahrain, where movie-lovers live in relative freedom. Of course, with traffic, the 15-mile drive across the King Fahd Causeway sometimes takes as long as three hours -- but my delight once the screen lights up is always worth the trouble.

My friend Tariq, who lives in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, isn't so fortunate. He has to travel more than 300 miles, or 500 kilometers, to reach the nearest border. Two years ago, in my debut film, "Cinema 500 km," I followed 21-year-old Tariq on his first trip outside the country for a day at the pictures. His savings plan included borrowing a friend's car for the trip and staying with another friend instead of renting a motel room. In all, the trip cost Tariq about $80. I know richer Saudis who fly to Bahrain and sleep at five-star hotels to spend a weekend at the movies -- making theirs surely the most expensive tickets in history.

Saudis may not have movie theaters, but we do know a thing or two about the silver screen. The country is a prime market for pay TV and has booming DVD and VHS sales. I know one video store in Riyadh that has more than 16,000 regular clients, most of them teenagers and young adults. In "Cinema 500 km," I interviewed the manager of the largest theater chain in Bahrain, who told me that in the summer and on holidays, as many as 90 percent of his customers are Saudis. So don't believe the fundamentalists who maintain that only a handful of young people have a craving for movies.

Life without movie houses or filmmaking schools has its benefits for wannabe filmmakers like me. The technical aspects of our films may not be very good, but we don't have to worry -- at least for now. Saudis have very few homegrown films to choose from, so they take what they can get. Nice, huh? And how many young American or European guys with only a couple of extremely low-budget short films to their credit have you seen writing in the pages of newspapers such as The Washington Post?

My second film, a 19-minute fictional drama called "Etaar" ("A Frame"), won a Special Jury Prize in the 2007 Emirates Film Competition and was nominated for a prize at the Dubai International Film Festival. Like many other Saudi productions, my movies are screened in countries such as the United States, France, Spain, Holland, India, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon. But some of my own friends still haven't seen them. When people started asking why a few years ago, Saudi officials were finally forced to allow limited movie screenings.

The official phobia surrounding the cinema is still so great that literary clubs (government-supported groups that organize artistic events for the public) started pre-screening certain movies and advertising them in newspapers as "educational films" -- just to prevent an uproar among anti-cinema groups. In 2006, when a local film screening was announced in Jiddah, where people live more freely than in Riyadh, the organizers had to bill the event as the "Jiddah Visual Shows Festival." Call them "Visual Shows," and you're in business. But use the words "cinema" or "film," and the government is guaranteed to prevent your screen from ever lighting up.

Happily, we'll be getting that scene change this week. The first annual Saudi Film Competition, which I helped organize, opens on Tuesday. Did you notice the word "film" in the title? The event is sponsored by the Saudi Society of Arts and Culture and the Dammam Literary Club, and is the first official film festival in Saudi history. Thirty-four short films, including three of mine, will compete for prizes. Eleven scripts have been entered for a separate award, and many other films will be screened outside the competition. The audiences will of course be segregated by sex, but Saudis will be able to watch, for free, movies that they once could only read about in newspapers.

My third and most recent film is called "Matar" ("Rain"). In Islamic and Arab cultures, rain is a good omen, and like my characters in "Matar," young Saudi filmmakers are expecting good days to come. The world has celebrated a century of cinema, and it has finally come to our country. Of course, we didn't wait and began making our little amateur films years ago, but I'm convinced that our audience is growing.

I believe that the world wants to learn more about my country, especially after the horrible events of Sept. 11, 2001, and their consequences, and we will show the world how Saudis live. I'm sure you'll love our stories. We'll keep trying to make better pictures, even without film schools or high-powered production companies. And who knows? One day we might even win an Oscar! Good movies are made with true passion -- and believe me, in Saudi Arabia, we moviemakers have plenty of that.

abdullah.eyaf@hotmail.com

Abdullah Al-Eyaf is a Saudi filmmaker and an organizer of the Saudi Film Competition.

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