Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Film Festival Finished Before it Started

O ne thing that my son and I miss the most since moving from the states to Saudi Arabia is simply going to the movies. There used to be movie theaters in KSA back in the 1970s. But when the big oil development boom arrived in the Kingdom, along with it came a more austere return to religious conservatism. Movie theaters were forced to close down and they have disappeared for the last thirty years.

The past few years have seen a growing movement toward a more progressive Saudi Arabia, but at every turn, calls for change have been met with opposition from the ultra-conservative and very influential religious faction. A few days ago, the 4th Annual Jeddah Film Festival was cancelled just hours before it was to begin. No reasons were given for the cancellation, which was handed down by the Interior Ministry. Many cultural activities are prohibited in Saudi Arabia. Any form of dance is non-existent (except at private functions, like parties or weddings where women dance but men are not present), music is frowned upon by many, and even simple innocent book fairs have been closed down here.

Cancelling the Jeddah Film Festival is a huge disappointment and a big setback for those who want to see social changes in Saudi Arabia. It must be a crushing blow to the fledgling Saudi film makers and promoters who had put their best efforts forward to make the popular festival a success. Months of planning went down the tubes in an instant. Over 70 Middle Eastern films were set to be shown and movie business bigshots had flown in from various MidEast countries to attend the planned weeklong event.

I certainly don't understand how on the one hand a cultural event like a film festival is cancelled, yet on the other hand, all types of movies on DVD are readily available in Saudi Arabia and we can view uncensored shows on satellite TV like Sex in the City and Nip/Tuck.

Saudi religious leaders have called movies evil and are adamantly against Western social influences which they feel will bring unacceptable lower standards to the Saudi way of life. They see the West as immoral purveyors of smut. They want to be able to control the population's behavior by restricting access to things that they see as indecent or against the religion. Within the royal family itself, there is disagreement about whether or not cinema should make a comeback in KSA. But one thing is for certain - the Saudi people themselves are avid fans of the big screen.

Last winter a Saudi comedy was shown to Jeddah and Taif audiences and was so successful that it was shown as many as eight times a day to accommodate the 25,000 people who attended. I read that the audiences consisted of men and women, which is another rare occurrence in and of itself, because in Saudi Arabia, unrelated men and women are restricted from socializing together. The same comedy was screened in June in Riyadh, but women were not allowed to attend. Only men and children were let in. There was a group of ultra-conservative men outside protesting the event in an attempt to discourage people from seeing the movie. Despite that, the movie goers enjoyed themselves - and the movie and the popcorn.

What strikes me often here in KSA is that some people seem to feel that having fun is wrong and that people should not do things that are fun - that fun is a form of decadence, and that in itself is against religious teachings so therefore it is wrong. Is this really what religion tells us? Or are we again just at the mercy of some misguided interpretations?


  1. As long as the powers that be insist on treating its populace as children that need constant attention and guidance...and therefore cant be left to make up their own minds about what they will or wont do...then Saudi will be stuck in this timewarp they have placed upon themselves.

    Its known that the prophet smiled and laughed alot in his such an extent that his back teeth could be seen from his laughter...obviously he had a funny bone and enjoyed life...why cant these bearded wonders do the same? or at least let others enjoy themselves. If it sends them to hell then so be was their free choice.

  2. Good grief. I don't know how you take living there.

  3. I think one factor about cinemas vs home DVDs is the activity that people get up to in the dark of a cinema,whether in mixed company, or same gender company or solo. In my experience the more conservative the society the more likely the cinema will be used in part for this purpose.

    I would greatly miss going to the cinema or even having the option of doing so.

    Are there any restrictions on home "movie nights"? If so, how would they be enforced.

    Once again Riyadh seems to stand out as particulary conservative.

    Certainly some Christian denominations prohibit music, dance, socializing in mixed company, etc. but not with the same degree of "thoroughness".

  4. It's really too bad they cancelled the film festival, it's very hypocritical for them do this and continue to allow "racy" DVD's into the country not to mention what people can see on satelite. Sounds like nothing but corruption in the name of religious conservatism to me, a lot of these so called Muslim countries are full of (open) corruption and lead the citizens to believe it's about religion

  5. Wow! Uh... Weird. Just a world of contradictions! I love your patience and insight.

  6. @Chiara

    In the mid-1980s, I attended a wonderful Christian church in Los Angeles, CA. It grew quickly, and had a huge youth department.

    One of the members' favorite things were the 4x/year picnics with square dancing... yes, simple square dancing. Even the teenagers loved these gatherings. The picnics really fostered community as well as having fun.

    Sadly, the pastor retired after a long tenure of service. The new pastor came in and.... banned square dancing! Apparently, no one bothered to ask him during the interview process what he thought of dancing.

    What burned me at the time, is that the congregation accepted that, and didn't vote him out and find a new pastor. Instead, they complained behind his back. I still am amazed at that event.

    Thankfully, I've never found communities or congregations that ban music and have the genders sit on opposite sides of the room. Probably because I'm on the Left Coast of the US. (LOL)

    ~A new, lurking fan.

  7. If the problem is the lights...then leave them on?! I mean, it would be hard to get used to, but this could be a solution. I will never understand why 'fun' is often equated with 'evil', even the 'good, clean' kind, in any culture.

  8. Unreal to me..

    The movie theaters here in Canada so civilized. All movies rated for maturity. As a parent/adult I can google and check out movies my kids and I want to see and make my own decisions on appropriateness. The way it should be.

    I have to wonder if SA deems any 'Hollywood' or American movies as sinful as they have no control to the message? And of course where the attendees are sitting.

    I find it repulsive that your new found country has such little respect for its men and women interacting. I wish the task masters would grow up and realize that situations such as being in a movie theater for a woman is NOT such a risky business.

    Hopefully in time...

  9. definately a misguided interpretation. what these religious bigots seem to be most concerned about is the development of any form of national culture/creativity. how else do u explain the fact that trashy shows like nip/tuck are accessible, but a genuine saudi film festival is cancelled?

  10. Hi CoolRed - Thanks for your comment. I couldn't have said it better myself!

    Hi Chiara - I honestly don't know about restrictions on home movie nights, however people can be arrested in the privacy of their own homes for innocent actions, so I would think that it might be a problem if they wanted to be sticklers about it.

    Hi Anonymous 1 - I used to love square dancing as a kid. I wish the congregation would have spoken up instead of going along with it like sheep.

    Hi Amyinbc - There are definitely some real control freaks here...

    Hi Anon 2 - To be fair, Nip/Tuck and other shows are received via satellite TV stations from other countries in the region, however from what I have been told, satellites are supposed to be banned in KSA, yet you can see dozens of them atop every building. So they manage to control many things, but not satellite TV for some reason.

  11. From what I had read the one member of the royal family who had sponsored the festival has angered the more conservative factions with his liberal leanings leading to the cancellation.Sounds like a family feud that has affected everyone else.Pretty mean spirited.

    God and the devil were walking down the street. God saw something shiny and bent down to pick it up. "Here, let me organize that for you",the devil said.Sums up what I think of "religions" and in KSA it's been taken to the extreme!

  12. Suzi, are you back in the Kingdom again?

    When I was in the camps in ARAMCO, while we could go to the movies just like in the States, the movies were edited and sections cut out due to the graphic nature of a scene or unacceptable words. Mostly we got Disney and G rated fare. But I remember watching "It's Alive" in 1975 in Abqaiq about a mutant baby and I wonder how it ever made it past the censors!
    Anyway, it is a shame that they would cancel the festival after all the preparation, time and effort of so many people. Again, the religious zealots have over-reacted and given another black eye to the Saudi people, one they did not deserve.
    Take care.... Kay DH78

  13. Ahmed at Saudi Jeans mentioned this as well, and it just left me shaking my head. As an actor in professional and semi-pro theatre here in upstate NY, the very thought of not being able to exercise my art is unthinkable. Then again, such is the cultural divide between the USA and KSA.

    Still, I find the dichotomy in the KSA striking. A country, which does in many ways live in the modern age, and still manages to be about as backwards socially as one can imagine. The rulers somehow have this strange notion that their culture will be corrupted by Western influences, and what they view as decadence, when they don't realize that it is already corrupted by the simple needs that humans desire. People will find a way to feed their vices in one way or another. Just look at Iran. They have many of the same rules, (though not quite as strict, I think) but people there find innumerable ways to get their hands on things that are considered "forbidden."

    Suzie, my hat is off to you. I don't know how you do it.

  14. Anonymous 1 "New Fan"--Thanks for your comment. Suppression of square dancing is definitely heading toward the hard right, conservative. Indeed living on the West Coast, you are repressive religion challenged. Certain types of Baptists are good for prohibitions on music, and all dancing. Maybe visit the Deep South! LOL :)

    Susie--Now that I think about it, home movie nights can be dangerous if someone decides to complain that a group is regularly getting together to watch illicit/ pornographic movies, the definition of porn being very flexible--even Merchant and Ivory's A Room with a View contains a brief glimpse of male frontal and lateral nudity. Carmin bin Laden wrote about this in her memoir, and others who have been arrested for other "crimes" have talked about it becoming part of building a case against their moral character.

    Anonymous 1 and 2--do you know about Susie's wonderful "make up a name and use it, with no email, no URL required" option? Just a thought in the hopes that we other commentators will have the benefit of more of your comments and the pleasure of continuity. :)

  15. Hi Susie,
    I've been lurking for a few months and love your blog. I was so cross about the cancellation of the film festival. One of my sons is a 'fledgling film maker' and i know how much effort goes into even a tiny film.
    Ironically, we had a Saudi visitor this week who is studying here and he seems to spend much of his time in the cinema.
    My husband is Saudi and we have many a 'discussion' about the ludicrous rulings of the clerics. I'm sure that for them it is just a way of maintaining their power. The accusation that one is not a good Muslim is almost unanswerable, but guaranteed to keep one looking over one's shoulder.
    Such nice people, such a misguided system.

  16. Hi Susie,

    Have been too busy traveling then finding and starting new job to go to a movie since leaving Jeddah.

    After hearing this, I knew what I was missing. Went to nice theater near my home which shows lots of indy films. Saw a good movie with Kathy Bates and Michelle Pheiffer, great performances by all. Sunk down in the seat with popcorn, Snow Caps, and a diet coke. It was wonderful. Yes, I have a DVD player, but it is just not the same.

    Silly and sad that people aren't allowed to experience something as benign as movies at a theater if they want.

    Once again, am so appreciative of how lucky I am to be free.

    *kissing the ground*


  17. I've been living as an ex-pat with my 5 kids in Egypt for the last 8 years. I don't know that I could handle the restrictions in KSA but I am grateful for the restrictions and censorship we have here. I don't have to worry about explaining "adult scenarios" to my 9 yr old who is watching tv and I have kids with high morals. I don't think it's a bad thing for a society to have rules the way the US once did when I was younger. And for those of you who think you have so much freedom, maybe you could consider this: Your freedom of press is only as free as the sponsors of the newspapers/programs allow it to be. You are free to the information as long as it marries up to the political views of those footing the bills via advertisements. And your freedom of religion is apparently only afforded to those who have no religion. Church groups are denied rentals of pavilions at city parks for a cookout and it's hidden behind "church and state" separation laws. Muslims are immediately considered terrorists and harrassed while walking through an airport to get to a flight. I'll gladly trade some of
    my "freedoms" for a safer and freer way of life anyday. It's just a trade-off in the end.

  18. I guess I would be in BIG TROUBLE because I sure like to have FUN!

  19. yeah. hollywood is immoral. so dont even dream to bring cinema to saudi arabia. if you want to watch movie with you son, huz, go to wonderfull amarica. where every thing is free.

    and dont bring prophet mohamed (PBU) to this subject. caz if he waz alive to day, he wont accept whats shown in hollywood movies, and he wont accept to see teen age couples sitting side by side eating popcones.

    first you want to open cinema for innocent films, for family, for Doumentary about palastine.

    but after a while the will what you watch in amarican cinemas, and teens will geather there. and there are no limits.

    and plz. dont compare cinema,with dvds in market, caz in america also you can buy a porn movie from stores but i dont think you cann watch XXX moveies on your cable TV ,, am I right? I dont know this surely.

  20. I believe why this particular movie festival was banned at this time (it has been running for 3 years) is because of Prince Waleed Ibn Talal's sponsoring it so heavily with his Rotana group.

    I don't have many nice things to say about Rotana or Prince Waleed except that everything that comes out of his company is putrid trash that any moviemaker,director,actor,actress,singer or artist would be ashamed to mention on their resume.

    He had a huge bust up with his family not too long ago (with his brother calling for his assets to be frozen) so this seems to be a family feud of some sort (with the ban coming from the very powerful royal dominated interior ministry).

  21. Mohamed, that's interesting. What was the family arguing about?

  22. You know, Mohamed S., that makes sense. Rotana channels are on our list of forbidden channels for the kids to watch. A lot of the really risque Egyptian movies that never make it to regular tv are shown on Rotana Cinema and the video clips shown on their music channels are also things I prefer my kids not to see...for the same reasons I don't let them watch YoMTV! Raps.

    Wouldn't be the first time family squabbles intertwined with political issues.

  23. "Saudi royal denounces his brother"

    "Prince Khaled bin Talal denounced his brother's media empire in an unprecedented public attack from within the ruling family.

    "Prince Khaled accused Prince Walid bin Talal of disseminating vice and violating the rules of Islamic Sharia in the conservative kingdom..."

  24. Perhaps it was not a Disney movie, but individuals should have the freedom to choose whether or not to attend a movie, not have it decided for them.

  25. a trade-off in the end, nikkimohammed? Where are you getting these stories of Churches and other religious groups not being allowed to "rent pavilions" or other religious groups not being able to practice openly? LOL. Unbelievable. There is discrimination occurring against Muslims (and many other groups) within the country but thank GOD the U.S. is a country where there are plenty of people that can vote and fight against this ignorance.

    The rules that the U.S. use to have were a good thing? I guess you agree with racial segregation, pre-Title IX where women faced difficulties in obtaining higher education/jobs, McCarthy/Cold War paranoia, women staying at home and being Donna Reed...and all kinds of ideas and "rules" as you call them that THANK GOD people are moving past now!

    As for what your kid is watching on tv....that's what parental control and monitoring is for...NOT GOVERNMENT CENSORSHIP....

  26. Im curious about that pic in ur post would seem those men are the cinema hallway. Wondering if thats actually halal considering there are plenty of pics in front of them on the wall. Ive always heard you cant pray with an "idol" anywhere near

  27. Mohamed S--very informative comment, thanks.
    Sibling rivalry + trash media--Ugh!
    Moses Znaimer in Canada built his media empire on soft core porn on his fledgling television station, and is now rebuilding it on a "spiritual" tv channel. And then there is the better known Berlusconi--O Dio! LOL :)

  28. Ti make matters worse ,,I heard that some harsh sharia sentences for robberies had came back into being nowadays ..Read last week Riyadh newspapers,,,ooh what a pity to so many Saudis who seek positive changes .

  29. hi....
    I would like to say that cultural activities in KSA are not prohibited...but there was something not good about that movie...may be some scenes..or some not actully know...I did not watch it till now...
    no one can tell that having fun is is a must to have FUN in your life........

  30. It is too bad that the film festival was blocked for any reason – they really should have thought about it before all the people spent so much time organizing it. I think that many Saudis do think that music and entertainment are evil. When I took care of the Saudi trainees here (for many years) some only had prayer tapes in their cars, but others liked music. The ones who did not like music or go to the movies were the minorities though. Hopefully things will change, but it will be very slow.

  31. It's actually what I missed the most in Saudi -- theater houses. And public libraries. And cultural shows. And parades! What a heck, at least I can blog.

  32. Susie, I know its not related to this post, so no need to post it, the following new has appeared in spanish nespapers. Is true?

    It's about a sexual scandal on KSA's TV

    Un hombre causa un gran revuelo al retransmitir detalles íntimos en un programa
    REUTERS - Arabia Saudí - 30/07/2009
    Mazen Abdul-Jawad, un hombre divorciado de 32 años y con cuatro hijos, ha causado un gran revuelo en la conservadora sociedad de Arabia Saudí al hablar sobre cómo las parejas pueden mejorar su vida sexual frente a una cámara de televisión.

    "Todo sucede en esta sala", dice en el vídeo del programa Al-Ahmar Bilkhat Areed( Wide Red Lines), antes de empezar a describir las técnicas y trucos empleados con las mujeres en las calles de la ciudad de Yeddah, junto al Mar Rojo.

    El hombre está en paradero desconocido desde que hace dos semanas el canal libanés LBC, perteneciente mayoritariamente al millonario principe Alwaleed bin Talal, retransmitiera el polémico vídeo que grabó en su habitación. Fragmentos de las confesiones han tenido casi medio millón de visitas en YouTube.

    El régimen político de Arabia Saudí impone de manera estricta las normas del islam en la vida de sus ciudadanos, vigilando su cumplimiento con un cuerpo especial de policía. Algunas de las leyes implican no mezclar hombres y mujeres, así como la prohibición de las drogas y el alcohol. En los últimos tiempos los jóvenes usan las nuevas tecnologías para intentar escapar de esta vigilancia.

    En el vídeo Abdul-Jawad cuenta cómo el sexo se convirtió en una parte importante de su vida desde su primer encuentro a los 14 años con una vecina. Además, muestra cómo se las ingenia para conocer chicas en el supermercado o a través del GPS mientras conduce su coche.

    "Él debe ser castigado y convertido en un ejemplo para todos"

    La respuesta pública al vídeo no se ha hecho esperar. La opinión generalizada en los periódicos y blogs es que el joven debería responder a la Justicia por haber transgredido las leyes o que, al menos, debería haber sido censurado.

    "Él confesó delante de todos que ha mantenido relaciones sexuales y que continúa manteniéndolas", escribió esta semana un anónimo en el foro del diario Al-Medina. "Por esa razón merece ser lapidado hasta la muerte, como estipula la ley islámica".

    Hashim Adnan, un chico de 24 años de la ciudad de Yeddah, ha dicho que Abdul-Jawad merece al menos algún tipo de censura. "Debe ser castigado y convertido en un ejemplo para todos. Nosotros no estamos acostumbrados a esto y no se aceptará este comportamiento", concluye.

    Interesting someon does it! Terrible the possible reaction. Something's changing when people make those challenges

  33. Hi Susie,

    Please remember that the religious establishment in Europe 500 years ago was much worse than the religious establishment in KSA today, because they use to prosecute any body who tried to express his view on issue related to modern science or come up with any scientific theory!!! we all remember that the great scientist Galileo who was forced by the the Church authority to publicly recant his view that the earth moved around the sun.
    I have no doubt in my mind that social changes will take place soon and one day we would all be laughing about such restriction.
    It's just a mater of time! the pressure of the young generation should not be underestimated.

  34. Ive been in jeddah for about 6 months now and finding the censorship and opinions of some frankly bizarre and totally hypocritical. The hardened conservatives talk of the evil west and its negative influences, however they seem quite happy to drive around in a huge (American) GMC and pop to the Mall to purchase a a pair of (Italian) Gucci loafers, and i speak from experience here! Jeddah is a great place with many wonderful people. There is change happening, I speak to many Saudi's who are totally behind the progress of the Country.

  35. as a saudi girl living in jeddah
    it saddens me
    because most of the rulings they go by here are not religion based but they use religion as an excuse

    its realy sad coz they do all this and they act like stupid asses thinking they can control people here by makeing everything illigal by useing islam as an excuse they dont realise that what they are doing makes are youth push harder to do worse things
    did u no that the comdey show that was held in jeddah was an underground thing even thou they advertised it bt yet they wouldnt reveal the location till the day of the show so the hayaa doesnt come and ruin it
    its really sad
    im a proud muslim and im a proud jeddawiah i just wish they would lighten up

  36. I fully realize the environment in which you live is extreme. However, I think lots of fun is prohibited worldwide due to "religious beliefs." But I have to say that I believe that is from misguided individuals (or groups of them), not from most religions. I'm not sure about the religion there, but every religion at some time or another has banned "fun." As a fundamental Christian myself, I have seen much of that, but I don't see the founder of my religion (Jesus Christ) having banned fun things. There are guidelines, and some "fun" things may be questionable, but an iron fist over it is not what was ever intended in my opinion. Most religions get warped by people.

  37. Hi Susie,

    I must say I felt uncomfortable reading your statement under Leave your comment ( Be nice, or I will delete your comment! ). because since you will not post any comment until you personally approve it, I do not see the need for such statement. Therefore, I really trust and hope that you would remove it.

  38. Hi Kay - I'm still in the states for a few more days.

    Hi Mr Nighttime - I do agree that the more something is forbidden, the more people will crave it. If that stigma is removed, I think Saudi society will behave normally and their own personal sense of morality will kick in.

    Hi Triple7 - Welcome - and thanks for chiming in!

    Hi Anon/ch - I totally agree that watching movies at home on DVD is a far different experience than enjoying a movie at the local cinema.

    Hi Nikkimohamed - I think that most parents become more diligent about imposing their own morals when the responsibility is theirs. Taking away certain responsibilities from parents here in KSA has made many parents lax in other areas about what their kids can do or say, watch on TV. I'm speaking from what I have seen personally myself.

    Hi Eastern Ref - Totally agree!

    Hi CoolRed - I actually got the photo off the net! It struck me as funny too...

    Hi Rawan - If people cannot be happy and have fun in life, then I wouldn't feel life would be worth living... If you could experience cultural events in other parts of the world, you would see a huge difference in what is disallowed in KSA compared to the rest of the world.

  39. Hi Isladenebz - Me too!!!

    Hi SMF - I appreciate your optimistic attitude about change coming, but I don't see changes coming any time soon... (sigh)

    Hi DeeDee - Thank you for coming forward and speaking up as a Saudi girl. I can't pretend to speak for the women here in KSA - I know how I feel, but I'm not always sure how the Saudi women may feel about things, so I thank you.

    Hi Louise - I totally agree. I would like to change your last snetence to: Most religions get warped by MEN.

    Hi SMF - Thanks for bringing that to my attention. I have changed the wording. Unfortunately it was necessary for me to change my settings so that comments are not published without my approval any more. I know there are people out there who may disagree with me and that's fine, but if they cannot state their opinions in a civil way, then I will not publish their comments.

  40. Fun is not prohibited in Islam or the Kingdom. As another comment mentioned, the cinema had been running for years. Saudi has changed a lot and continues to but at its own pace. Yes we have access to TV and movies that are not censored. Saudi is still in its infant stages as far as the film industry goes. I think it was just too early. Its sorta like walking into congress and telling the "good old boys" that what they are doing isn't what everyone wants and we are going to make a lot of changes. Of course they won't just roll over and say okay when they have been doing it longer than the new boys. They will be met with opposition. Change takes time, understanding, and most importantly, patience. It might not be as fast as some wish but it is happening.