Saudi religious men stand near a poster of the first Saudi film "Menhai" at its opening at King Fahad Center in Riyadh yesterday. Fahad Shadeed / Reuters
A few hundred Saudis braved a small band of religious hardliners to take part in a historic event on Saturday night: the first public showing of a commercial film in decades in the Saudi capital.
With bags of popcorn and soft drinks in their laps, the men-only crowd of more than 300 in Riyadh’s huge King Fahd Cultural Centre cheered, whistled and clapped when the first scenes of the Saudi-made “Menahi” hit the screen and the film’s score erupted in surround sound.
“This is the beginning of change,” said university student Ahmed al-Mokayed, attending with his brother and cousin.
Businessman Abdul Mohsen al-Mani, who brought his two sons to the film, was ecstatic, after being denied public cinema for some three decades. “This is the first step in a peaceful revolution,” he said. “I don’t want my two sons to grow up in the dark ... I told them that in the future they will talk about today like a joke.”
It was long in coming and no one is certain that it will launch a thriving public cinema industry, with strident opposition from clerics who regard film, music and other entertainment as violating Islamic teachings.
Police at the venue had to fend off a small band of conservative Muslims who warned that films were bringing disasters on the country, citing a recent series of minor earthquakes in western Saudi Arabia.
“Allah is punishing us for the cinema,” one said. “It is against Islam.”
“Menahi”, a comedy about a Saudi country bumpkin getting lost in the big city, was shown in December to huge crowds in the relatively freewheeling Red Sea city of Jeddah.
Cinema and theatre contrary to Islam, says Saudi grand mufti
Riyadh (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Cinema and theatre are “against Sharia” because they distract people from work and weaken their efforts in achieving progress, said Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti Shaikh Abdul Aziz Alu Al Sheikh during a conference on leisure, visual arts and literature attended by students at King Saud University.“Theatrical performance, whether it is a cinema or a song, would generally make an impression that is against Sharia. People need only those (art forms) that are useful to them to change their way of life (in an Islamic manner),” he decreed.
Last year the Grand Mufti issued an edict, in which he slammed Turkish soap operas like ‘Nour’ and ‘The Last Years,’ the hottest shows on Arab TV, describing them as “so much evil” that “they destroy people’s ethics and are against our values.”
The mufti’s pronouncements are however a sign that Saudi society is increasingly split between a ruling establishment made up of very conservative clerics who espoused strict adherence to Islamic precepts and a broader group of more liberal-oriented young Saudis who want greater openness, more freedom for women and a greater range of entertainment.
Like young people across the Middle East young Saudis routinely go online which gives them access to US action movies, but they cannot go to the movies, an issue that is still taboo.
Yet the recent screening of a Saudi comedy, ‘Menahi’, in two movie theatres twice a day for eight days—with women dutifully seated in the balcony, and men in the stalls—was cheered by many Saudis.
“We put sound and visual equipment, we sold tickets for the first time in Saudi Arabia, and we even sold popcorn,” said Ayman Halawani, general manager of Rotana Studios, the production arm of a company owned by Waleed bin Talal, a financier and member of the royal family, who has become the target of ultra-conservatives for his liberal ideas and investments in the TV and show business.
Overall some 25,000 people actually saw the film.
Such desire for openness is in contrast with what the ruling class wants for Saudi society. For the old guard any overture to customs and traditions that are not strictly Islamic is a threat that must be opposed.