RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — No one would mistake the scene for Cannes. Dotting the horizon were the towers of oil refineries instead of the masts of mega-yachts. Sparkling water was the only bubbly for toasts.
But for Saudi Arabia’s tightknit community of filmmakers, the February event had more meaning than hobnobbing on the Riviera. The film festival in the eastern city of Dammam was just the second government-
approved showing of short movies and documentaries in recent years. It kindled hopes — still faint — that Saudi rulers could be slowly warming to the idea of film in a land where movie theaters are banned.
“Filmmaking is all about trying something new, experimenting and not giving up,” said Mohammed Baqer, one of the organizers of the Saudi Film Festival — the first major showcase and competition since a small workshop-style event last year. “So we don’t give up on the idea of change. Look at the winners of the festival.”
Two women, Hana al-Omair and Shaheed Ameen, were the stars. Omair was presented the Golden Palm Tree for her short drama “Complain,” which tells the story of a hospital worker’s woeful life. Ameen’s runner-up short film, “Eye & Mermaid,” is a fantasy about a girl who learns that her father tortured a mermaid to take coveted black pearls.
Shortly after the awards ceremony, though, the country’s always-busy Twitter world lit up with rage from conservatives over images showing unrelated men and women freely mixing — an official taboo in the kingdom.
“I didn’t say change would be easy,” said Baqer, 25, whose latest short documentary, “Nepal,” chronicles a group of Saudi photographers visiting the Himalayas.
The reactions to the festival reflect Saudi Arabia’s internal contradictions and generational tensions, factors that make predictions about the kingdom so difficult.
Saudi rulers banned movie theaters in the 1980s, apparently to appease Islamic hard-liners. (One Imax theater operates in the eastern city of Khobar, but it is used exclusively for science- and travel-related fare.)
Yet Saudi Arabia is awash in films, which are available on TV, through the Internet and, for a hardy few, old-school DVD rentals. The regular Saudi TV cable packages have dozens of movie channels with a heavy emphasis on Hollywood and Bollywood — with any sensual scenes censored, of course. Saudis may not be able to go to movie theaters, but that didn’t stop a group of men from taking in “Fast & Furious 6” this month as they gathered at a cafe near Dammam to smoke water pipes with aromatic tobacco and watch the big-screen TV.
One of the Middle East’s entertainment giants is also a Saudi with high connections. Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, a nephew of Saudi King Salman, is principal owner of the Rotana media empire, which includes radio stations, a record label and more than a dozen TV channels — which show Fox programs and movies as part of joint investments between Waleed and Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox.
Waleed has shown his interest in Saudi filmmaking, helping produce the best-known Saudi-made film to date, “Wadjda,” a feature-length drama about an 11-year-old Saudi girl’s yearning for a green bicycle and the cultural and personal barriers she overcomes to get it.
The film, released in 2012, was Saudi Arabia’s first official bid for an Academy Award in the foreign-language category. A film from rival Iran, “A Separation,” took that Oscar in 2012. “Wadjda” was not selected as an Oscar finalist, but it subsequently earned a nomination at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) awards.
“I feel Saudi is opening up and it is a great opportunity now for people to bring new concepts to the society,” the film’s director, Haifaa al-Mansour, told Screen Daily in 2012. “Saudi is going through a very important shift in its history.”
But sometimes the evolution can be hard to spot. Mansour said she oversaw the filming of her movie on the streets of Riyadh, the capital, from inside a van — driven by a man. She had to talk to the male actors via walkie-
talkie because of the kingdom’s rules limiting gender mixing and its ban on women driving.
Although Mansour and other directors are well aware of society’s red lines, they still are flying blind on the parameters for moviemaking in the kingdom.
“It’s all very frustrating and confusing,” said Baqer. “Say you want to make a film here. You need a permit, right? But there is no structure to get a permit. So many filmmakers just take the easiest route and shoot outside the country.”
Baqer just returned from Burma, where he filmed Buddhist priests for a project on common values among religions.
Saudi government officials did not respond to several queries on whether there were any discussions on lifting the movie theater ban. But authorities have pointed to the Dammam film festival as a sign of a greater opening for local filmmaking.
“Can I predict when or if we will see cinema return to Saudi Arabia? No,” said filmmaker Mohanna Abdullah, 42, whose 20-minute work, “Adam’s Ant,” tells the story of a desperate prisoner whose only connection to the outside world is an ant that climbs into his cell each day.
“I can say that the film culture in the country is developing with or without theaters,” he added. “We have people making films, talking about films, acting in films. This is the new generation speaking.”
But, he conceded, “it would just be nice to be able to go to the movies and not have to travel to Bahrain or Dubai.”
Abdullah’s film has been shown at Cannes and other festivals around the world. He now has another project in the works, but like all directors, he is coy about tipping his hand about the details.
The film is titled “Chicken.”
“Okay, it’s not about a chicken,” he said. “But there is a chicken in it. That’s all I’m going to say.”