Aspiring Saudi Filmmakers Challenge Kingdom's Strict Mores, Movie Theater Ban

By Faiza Saleh Ambah
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 15, 2009

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- Aspiring Saudi filmmaker Mohammed al-Khalif is having a hard time finding a leading woman for his short film, "Garbage Bag."

Partly, it is because Saudi Arabia does not allow unrelated men and women to mingle and has no movie theaters or film schools, and no culture of actors or acting.

And partly, it's the subject matter.

"Garbage Bag" is about a woman stuck in a public restroom because her abaya, the black cloak women in Saudi Arabia must wear in public, has been stolen. After an agonizing night in the restroom, she fashions an abaya out of a black garbage bag and walks out.

"It's almost impossible to find a woman to act in a movie and even harder to find someone willing to wear a garbage bag as an abaya," said Khalif, a 23-year-old graduate student who sports a goatee and white-rimmed glasses. "My intent is not to insult the abaya, but to use film to ask why it has become such a shackle for Saudi women."

Khalif is part of a new group of young Saudi movie buffs who are making films that question their country's strict, puritanical mores and customs and its ban on movie theaters. The group, called Talashi, which means Fade Out, includes a pharmacist, a teacher, a lawyer and five film reviewers, mostly secular Saudis who say their worldviews were influenced by their love of film and the worlds to which it has exposed them.

But in pursuing their passion, the group is confronting the kingdom's powerful clerics and going up against decades of culture that branded movies a Western evil that would strip the country of its conservative Muslim nature.

"What was acceptable for my father's generation is not acceptable for me," said Mohammed al-Hamoud, 24, the lawyer who is working on a film about a 15-year-old girl forced into an arranged marriage. "I want to question the way we live, the things we once accepted blindly. We want to make up our own minds about how we live."

Saudi Arabia has banned movie theaters since the early 1980s after a rise in religious conservatism. More recently, its neighbors, especially the United Arab Emirates, began developing fledgling film industries by financing young filmmakers and hosting annual film festivals, inspiring the region's youth.

Though foreign films had been allowed into the kingdom, they were censored and limited in scope and number. But with an explosion of satellite television channels, DVDs and movie downloads from the Internet, film aficionados have been able to watch nearly anything, from all over the world.

Filmmakers sometimes arrange for private screenings at their homes or at the homes of friends. Over the past couple of years, short films have been shown sporadically in auditoriums and literary clubs. To circumvent the wrath of powerful anti-film groups, the showings are advertised in the local media as "educational films" or "visual shows."

Last year, film lovers organized Saudi Arabia's first film festival, in the eastern city of Dhahran. And in a sign that movies are becoming more acceptable, a locally produced film was screened publicly in Jiddah, the country's most liberal city. The screening was approved by the provincial governor, Prince Khalid al-Faisal.

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