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Monday, December 22, 2008

Make 'Em Laugh: Cinema Returns to Saudi Arabia

Updated 23.12.08

Global Voices offers a selection of opinions on Menahi from Saudi bloggers.


Qatar Happenings comments that Menahi, the first film to be produced and screened in Saudi Arabia for many years, is "helmed by Ayman Makram, is the first bigscreen incarnation of popular Saudi actor Fayez Al-Maliki's TV persona Menahi, a naive, humble Saudi farmer who often finds himself involved in comic escapades beyond his control." In Variety, the cinema industry magazine, Ali Jafaar adds that the film features "Menahi getting involved in a get-rich-quick scheme and traveling from his tribal homeland in the conservative kingdom to the booming metropolis of Dubai. Once there, he finds himself unwittingly embraced, a la Peter Sellers in “Being There,” as a financial guru.

Variety's headline -- "Saudi Business Beats the Odds" -- tells the story behind the film, which is the second feature from billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal's media company Rotana. Reuters' article (widely syndicated) highlights the difficulty of making -- and larger difficulty of screening -- films in Saudi Arabia. The Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice argue that cinema is evil, and mixed gender public screenings are not allowed. But Rotana got permission to screen the film from the Ministry of Information; King Abdullah has been pushing for some modernisation.

The film's evident success (much more so than many US and UK productions adapted from TV shows) -- the audiences were so extensive, it was played eight times a day over a 10-day period, at cultural centres in Jeddah and Taif -- speaks to a public and pervasive appreciation for culture and entertainment. Samaa TV quotes a young viewer excited to see his own culture on screen: "We, as Saudi youths, we need to see such films. Instead of going abroad to see films, it's better to watch them here in Saudi cinemas," Jameel Khalawi said. ITN Source has more video of audiences cracking up (and groaning) at the film, and interviews with enthusiastic audience members (in Arabic).

And Menahi seems to be a sign of things to come. In Variety, Jaafar adds that:
[Saudi] Sheik Waleed Al-Ibrahim's TV net MBC Group is in production on "2The Circle," the first feature launched under its film division. Gulf pic is being produced by Kuwaiti Abdullah Boushahri and helmed by Emirati filmmaker Nawaf Al-Janahi.

Execs at Saudi-owned paybox ART are also ramping up their investment in the Arab film biz. In addition to inking a three-picture financing deal with Egyptian shingle Misr Intl. Films, ART execs are set to go into production on "The Kid," helmed by well-known Syrian TV director Hatem Ali. "The Kid," which will be Ali's first Egyptian feature, is about a successful businessman whose son dies. The man immerses himself in his late son's private life only to discover he never really knew him at all.

Queer Arabs blog adds that: "In May this year, the Dammam Literary Club held the the conservative kingdom's first official film fest," screening selected short films.

Beyond the big business of financing deals and well-known directors, digital technology and the internet are giving those with access the ability to express the realities of their daily lives, without asking permission in advance. As Jafaar notes:
It's not just on the bigscreen that Saudis are expressing their cinematic talent. Some citizens are using video as a tool of social protest. Wajeha Al-Huwaider has posted a video of herself at the wheel of a car on the popular vidclip site in defiance of official restrictions on women driving in the country.

"For women to drive is not a political issue," says Wajeha as she drives. "It is not a religious issue. It is a social issue, and we know that many women of our society are capable of driving cars."

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