Secret group screens films over Saudi ban

Five filmmakers in Saudi Arabia are subverting a cinema ban with secret screenings, writes David Batty

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 October, 2012, 3:40pm


In a country with no public cinemas and where only a few films have been shown to the public in more than three decades, it is a radical step: a group of filmmakers in Saudi Arabia have launched a secret society showing their own films that explore social and political issues such as women's rights, the lives of migrant workers, urbanisation and the belief in black magic.

On October 11, after evening prayers, more than 60 people attended the first screening by the Red Wax secret cinema in a large warehouse in the southwestern city of Abha. Directed to the clandestine event by text message, they crowded inside the hired space, which was then bolted shut.

Most sat on cheap red plastic chairs placed in rows before a makeshift screen made from a large white sheet, but as the audience was larger than the organisers had expected, some stood. As the lights dimmed, nervousness gave way to quiet anticipation and in silence they watched a film about the lives of migrant workers on one of the country's major building projects. After the screening the audience discussed the issues it raised and the ban on cinemas in the kingdom.

"I was really nervous; everyone was nervous," says the film's director, a co-founder of Red Wax. "We didn't have a plan if [police came]. Everyone parked away from the place. We sent them directions by text message to their mobiles or rang them. Our fears are just to get caught or sent to jail."

Cinemas were shut down in 1975 after the assassination of King Faisal, who was criticised for introducing television to Saudi Arabia. Religious conservatives consider cultural activities such as films and concerts to be immoral and against Islamic values.

There were signs of liberalisation with the launch in 2006 of the annual European film festival in Jeddah, which shows films to a select audience in embassies and consulates. The first official Saudi film festival followed in May 2008 in the eastern city of Dammam, although it has not been repeated. Later that year the comedy Menahi, financed and produced by King Abdullah's billionaire nephew Prince Al Walid bin Talal's Rotana Media, became the first film, apart from a few children's cartoons, to be shown publicly for 30 years when it ran for barely a week in Jeddah and nearby Taif.

But there was a backlash following its more limited screening in the capital Riyadh, with hardliners issuing a fatwa against cinemas in July 2009 that led the government to ban their construction.

The collective of five filmmakers - four men and one woman - says Red Wax refers to the official stamps that are used to restrict freedoms in the kingdom, although one member says it is also a strong cannabis resin.

The first event was only open to men, with the audience including students, writers and artists aged from 20 to 40 years. But women will be invited to future events, scheduled to take place in other cities and organised via social networking websites to attract a wider audience.

The director of the first film shown says: "Saudi people love cinema. People drive to Bahrain at the weekend just to see films, or fly to Dubai. You can see thousands of films on pirate DVDs for US$2 or US$3. You can download on BitTorrent or see it on satellite TV. You cannot imagine how much file-sharing there is.

"The problem is with some of the religious movements and extremists. They say it's haram [sinful] because of the content of the films and people being there communally. But we say it's not haram because cinema is not mentioned in the Koran or the Hadith [the sayings and acts of the Prophet Mohammed]."

The group decided to set up a secret cinema after the authorities cracked down on Saudi filmmakers who posted work on YouTube which, according to Al-Arabiya news channel, receives as many as 90 million page views from the kingdom every day.

Feras Bugnah, a video blogger, was arrested and detained for two weeks last year after posting on the site a film about poverty in Riyadh, which attracted more than 800,000 views. "On YouTube they always watch you and restrict the page," another Red Wax founder says. "Secret cinema is Banksy style - no one knows who he is."

The filmmakers deny that their activities are un-Islamic. Their aim, they say, is both to stimulate grass-roots film production and a critical audience. "The films should be made by people here [to give] more freedom of expression to our community. It's [about] our daily life, our struggle against all these banning forces, not to be free to say what we want. We need to reach average people so we can raise the level of awareness. It's not provocative, it's more real. If I make a film, I need an audience. It's not interesting if a film is not showing inside [the kingdom] because not all Saudis can travel abroad."

The next film to be screened explores women's rights and was shot with a camera hidden in a black abaya robe. Another looks at the belief in black magic. The director says: "It's restricted in Islam to go to a wizard but it's really common because a lot of people believe it is more than medicine. One of my friend's brothers was in hospital with a liver infection and people told him to buy a black rooster and pour its blood on his body."

Haifaa Al-Mansour, whose first feature film Wadjda was shown in this year's London Film Festival, says the secret cinema shows there is a desire in the country for young people to come together and tell their stories and raise issues through film. But the lack of a public audience makes it difficult to produce films in the kingdom, she says. "The funding is very difficult because a lot of people don't know what to do with a film from Saudi Arabia. How politically will it be placed? Where's it going to show? So they'd rather give money to filmmakers in Lebanon and Egypt. It's very frustrating."

Mona Deeley, a producer for Cinema Badila: Alternative Cinema on BBC Arabic TV, says: "The secret cinema is an interesting initiative for both subverting the ban on cinema and as a form of civil and cultural resistance."

Egyptian writer and curator Omar Kholeif, director of Britain's Arab Film Festival, cautiously welcomes the secret cinema. "I would personally question what real impact a 'secret' cinema event could have - after all, it is secret. In spirit, and in ethos, I think it is to be applauded, but what I would really like to see is how this group could intervene publicly - to mount a true act of subversion."

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