05/24/2008, 00.00
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A film festival in a land without movie theatres

The event marks a significant step in Saudi Arabia where movie theatres are banned and DVDs are censored. Unusually for a place like Saudi Arabia, men and women were in the same hall, albeit separated by a glass partition.

Riyadh (AsiaNews/Agencies) – In a land where movies theatres have been closed since 1980 and movies brutally censored, legally viewed only at home or in small cultural clubs, and even those are occasionally attacked by religious leaders, holding a film festival sounds odd. For this reason the first Saudi Film Festival, which closed last Tuesday in Ad Dammām, in eastern part of the kingdom, must be seen as a sign of King Abdullah’s commitment to modernisation, however cautious it may be. The fact that it actually took place is evidence of that.

On this occasion men and women entered through separate doors (women coming through a back entrance) and sat in separate halls with the conspicuous presence of the Mutaween or religious police who told four female journalists, Saudi and non-Saudi, to move from the middle of the room to side chairs in the front row.

During the festival the hall was divided by a glass partition; men sitting in the front seats, women and children kept in the back; an unusual arrangement in a country where public space and many business activities are not only separated but strictly segregated by sex.

Significantly, Information Minister Eyad Madani attended the festival. His presence not only gave the competition an unequivocal stamp of official approval, but also gave him an opportunity to speak in support of a public debate over the issue of cinema and movies.

Still such an issue remains a hard sell. A few days ago in fact, a religious cleric slammed a cultural club in the northern city of Hayel for screening an Indian movie on the grounds that it encouraged decadence, showing people drinking alcohol and men and women together.

There was nothing of the sort in the film festival which featured 48 short pieces of fiction, documentaries and animated works: 19 from Saudi Arabia, 18 from the Gulf States, 9 from Japan and 2 from Russia.

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