x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Curtain draws on film festival

The cancellation of the week-long event in Jeddah the day before it was to begin and without explanation is seen as a victory for religious conservatives.

A man holds up his ticket to see the Saudi film Menahi last December in Jeddah.
A man holds up his ticket to see the Saudi film Menahi last December in Jeddah.

JEDDAH // Saudi authorities abruptly cancelled this year's Jeddah film festival after three successful years of screening international films, dealing a blow to the kingdom's attempt to show a more liberal face. The week-long festival was to have started on Saturday, but authorities announced its cancellation on Friday without a clear reason. Observers, however, have put the move down to pressure from religious conservatives who have objected to the low-key revival of cinema in the kingdom after an absence of 30 years.

The festival was to have featured 71 films from the Gulf - including two from Saudi Arabia - and dozens more shorts by local and regional filmmakers. Some 50 directors from Gulf countries had travelled to the kingdom. Rotana Studios, a media company controlled by Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, has been leading the push for more cultural freedom in the conservative Sunni kingdom. Prince Alwaleed had personally backed the film festival. Many think the cancellation was an attempt to stop his activities.

Rotana Group, the parent company of Rotana Studios, has produced two Saudi movies in the past four years. Its first film, Keif al Hal (How Are You?), about a young woman's struggle with her conservative family, had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in 2006. The film was written by an Egyptian, filmed by a Canadian and shot in Dubai. Although it was not shown in Saudi, it drew criticism from conservatives who objected to the presence of a Jordanian woman with a Saudi man.

Rotana's second film, Menahi, about a young Saudi Bedouin called Menahi who struggles with modernity after becoming rich while living in Dubai, was shown in December at a cultural centre in Jeddah owned by the municipality. While conservatives criticised its use of foul language, it was only when the film entered the Saudi capital, Riyadh, last month that the religious authorities took a much harder line.

Ibrahim al Ghaith, the strict former head of the kingdom's religious police, reacted by calling cinemas "an evil". He eased his tone 24 hours later to say that cinemas should show good things and not violate the teachings of Islam. Saudi reformers had been optimistic about change in the kingdom as an opening followed the accession King Abdullah to the throne in 2005. They were encouraged further after he removed two strict top clerics earlier this year in a major cabinet reshuffle that included Mr al Ghaith.

"I can give only one reason for the cancellation of Jeddah film festival ? the screening of Menahi," said Khalid Rabie, a Saudi film critic and the first to write a book on the history of cinema in the kingdom. "Menahi portrayed an image of the simple Saudi man that is unwelcomed by conservatives because he doesn't live his life based on Islamic principles." The reason that Keif al Hal did not cause as much controversy in Saudi was because it was not viewed as a truly Saudi movie, he said. Menahi, on the other hand, was already controversial as Faiz al Malki, the film's star, had angered many conservatives for appearing in a soap opera on the MBC channel during Ramadan.

"Menahi is a poor movie from a technical point of view and unacceptable from a social point of view," Mr Rabie said. The cancellation of the film festival in Jeddah, Saudi's most liberal city, comes shortly after the Jeddah Economic Forum was called off, partly because of criticism that there was too much female participation and too much foreign influence. Jeddah is viewed by conservatives in the kingdom as a centre for social change and home to the country's liberal constituency.

"Jeddah is known historically and to this day for being a pioneer in introducing new cultural forms, trends and lifestyle due to its diversity, tolerance and open mindedness. Those who view Jeddah as a gate of disturbance basically are unaware of Jeddah's history and, more importantly, are closing the window to the fresh air that Jeddah is known to blow," said Wael Abu Mansour, a Jeddah-based journalist.

"Cancelling the fourth Jeddah film festival was a sad episode and a setback in our long path towards being a normal cultural and art friendly society." wmahdi@thenational.ae