Dialogue between the genders: Saudi films get rave reviews at Riyadh screening

Saudis attend the "Short Film Competition 2" festival on October 20, 2017, at King Fahad Culture Center in Riyadh. (AFP)
Updated 24 October 2017

Dialogue between the genders: Saudi films get rave reviews at Riyadh screening

RIYADH: The lights go out, the projector whirls and entertainment-starved Saudis sink into plush seats to soak up an experience they have been denied for decades — a trip to the cinema.

The rare movie night this week in Riyadh was a precursor to an expected formal lifting of the Kingdom's ban on cinemas, long vilified as vulgar and sinful by hardliners.

Following a decree allowing women to drive, authorities have hinted cinemas would soon be permitted as part of ambitious reforms for a post-oil era.

"Cinema is like the soul of Saudi society," said Faisal Alharbi, director of "National Dialogue," one of three short films screened to an audience packed into the capital's King Fahd Cultural Centre.
"It makes people see reality, a reflection of their own lives on screen."

The cavernous hall was segregated by gender at the free screening — the latest in a series of shows since July.

A food truck hawking grilled burgers was parked outside and the audience was offered servings of Arabic coffee in thimble-sized plastic cups.

Once the ban ends, medical student Sultan expects cinemas with all the trappings of the modern movie experience, including vending machines churning out popcorn and cotton candy.

"I expect the movie theaters will be crowded all the time," the 19-year-old audience member told AFP.

Reviving cinemas would represent a paradigm shift in the Kingdom, which is promoting entertainment as part of a sweeping reforms plan dubbed "Vision 2030."

Saudi Arabia in recent months has organized concerts, a Comic-Con pop culture festival and National Day celebrations that saw people dancing in the streets to thumping electronic music for the first time.

A ban on cinemas does not make sense in the age of YouTube, filmmakers say.

Saudi films have been making waves abroad, using the internet to circumvent distribution channels.

"Wadjda," by Saudi female director Haifaa Al-Mansour, made history in 2013 after it became Saudi Arabia's first Academy Award entry.

The film depicts the dream of a 10-year-old girl to get a bicycle just like the boys in her neighborhood.

This year, the country is again vying for an Oscar with the film "Barakah Meets Barakah," the Kingdom's first romantic comedy which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival.

"Without cinemas, the country's rich artistic talent will die," Hisham Fageeh, the film's lead actor, told AFP. "Saudis need a nuanced cultural identity outside the prism of religion."

The government is yet to officially announce a date for ending the ban, but already the hashtag "cinemas opening in Riyadh" is gaining traction on social media, as memes swirl online showing people imagining booking their cinema tickets.

The expected reform stems partly from an economic motive to boost domestic spending on entertainment as the Kingdom reels from a protracted oil slump.

Saudis splurge billions of dollars annually to see movie shows and visit amusement parks in the neighboring tourist hubs of Bahrain and Dubai.

Without cinemas, investment in films is unlikely to flourish and the depiction of society will not move beyond the foreign portrayal of Saudis as extremist or culturally primitive, filmmakers say.

"Cinemas will make us feel human," said Ali Kalthami, co-founder of C3 Films and Telfaz11, which provides comedy videos on YouTube.

Kalthami's film "Wasati," or moderate in Arabic, is based on a real-life event in the mid-1990s when a group of ultraconservatives disrupted a play at a Saudi university.

The film was screened for one night earlier this year at the same theater where the play was shut down.

Back at King Fahd Cultural Centre, Alharbi's "National Dialogue" was watched by a rapt audience.

The film addresses the social dilemma of young Saudis struggling to find the right match.

It dramatises an encounter in the streets between an unrelated man and a woman, both checking each other out without talking.

They appear to like each other, but in the film's denouement the man rejects the woman, judging her to be immoral after she lifts her veil to give him a glimpse.

Alharbi said the film intended to promote dialogue between the genders — and the screening did just that.

As the lights came on, the raucous crowd of men erupted into cheers. They were vigorously booed by the female audience.

Food trucks serve in holy places for first time

Updated 39 min 59 sec ago

Food trucks serve in holy places for first time

  • About 45 food trucks were given permit to roam the holy places to offer food, drinks and desserts to pilgrims
  • Only Saudi citizens are allowed to work in these food trucks


MINA: Food trucks run by Saudi men and women have begun for the first time to serve food and drinks in the holy places.

This was after Deputy Makkah Gov. Prince Abdullah bin Bandar directed the Secretariat of the Holy Capital to allow local entrepreneurs to provide their services inside the holy places during the current Hajj season.

Unlike the old fixed food stalls, about 45 food trucks have begun roaming the holy places to offer food, drinks and desserts to pilgrims. They also serve ice cream to help people cope with the heat, as well as different kinds of sandwiches.

The Secretariat of the Holy Capital confirmed that all food trucks in Arafat comply with health requirements, with every food truck manager carrying health certificates that allow them to carry out their activities.

The Secretariat highlighted that only Saudi citizens are allowed to work in these food trucks.

Afaf Abdul Aziz, one of the women serving hot drinks, said that she was pleased that the governor of Makkah had allowed women to work in the holy places.

She added: “The job is hard but truly fun. I wanted to prove that Saudi women can work in all occupations and contribute to serving pilgrims.”

She said that most of her customers were Saudis or from Arabian Gulf countries, most of whom worked in providing Hajj services.

“I have seen many Saudi women working in hospitals, health care centers, and Tawafa establishments, which makes me content,” she said.

Arif Obaid said that he worked in a food truck and served hot drinks, especially coffee, highlighting that many security men visited his truck for all kinds of coffee, especially Arabic coffee, which is in high demand. “Most of our goods go to charity work targeting pilgrims,” he said.

The Secretariat of the Holy Capital has announced accepting applications from Saudi men and women who wish to practice this activity in the holy places during the current Hajj season according to a set of standards and controls. 

The most important of these is ensuring the safety of nourishments served to pilgrims and that the applicant has a health certificate proving that she/he is free of contagious or infectious diseases.