RIYADH, 22 March 2006 — In the only country in the world without movie theaters, watching box office films on the big screen is an unusual pleasure for movie lovers in the Kingdom. It also involves a long journey to another country.
This journey inspired a Saudi director to make his cinematic debut with “Cinema 500 km,” a film that ironically won’t be shown publicly in Saudi Arabia.
Relying on a indie-sized budget of only SR8,000, the director Abdullah Eyaf followed his friend Tareq Al-Hussaini as he embarked on an epic quest to watch a movie. Eyaf chronicles the entire journey, which involves Al-Hussaini obtaining a passport, traveling from Riyadh to Alkhobar, crossing an international boundary into Bahrain, until, finally, entering the renowned Seif Mall in Manama, buying a ticket, and entering a movie theater.
“It happened to be that I knew an acquaintance that loves movies and had never been to a cinema,” Eyaf told Arab News. “So I thought why not document the whole thing in a film in real life with actual happenings behind the camera as he goes on his long journey from Riyadh to Bahrain just to watch a movie?”
Eyaf said he obtained permission from the Ministry of Culture and Information to shoot the film. He also had to coordinate with officials in Bahrain to film inside the Seif Mall.
“I wanted to bring out the voices of all those people who have to travel to another country and take a journey of four to six hours just to watch a movie and come back,” he said. “There isn’t really a script for the movie. The actors in the movie were not told what to say. They were on their own. I was merely shooting them as if I was not there.”
“Cinema 500 km” was one of the 10 Saudi movies that participated in the recent Dubai Film Festival. Even though the film did not receive an award, it gained recognition for its theme and initiative. The director, producer and writer of the small-budget film said that it would take at least six months for the film to be distributed.
Eyaf said that Saudi youths have a lot of talent in the filmmaking industry and that this talent should be nurtured.
“The person will remain an amateur until he finds the right environment that would nurture him. I say the solution is with production companies such as Rotana, for example,” he said, referring to the largest distributors of Arabic entertainment, mostly music. “Emiratis, Bahrainis, and even Qataris will have a chance to see the movie in the cinema, while Saudis themselves won’t be able to see it.”
Regarding the Kingdom’s lack of movie theaters, Eyaf said he did not think all the blame should be on the religious institution here. “I believe there is a multitude of reasons, mostly commercial. We had cinema in the past. It was expensive. And at the same time tapes were cheap. That is why I believe they were closed. Saudi society also went through a conservative period,” he said.
He said that to his knowledge there was no official law in Saudi Arabia that forbids cinema, but that no one has come up with the initiative yet.
“That is why I wish the media could bring this issue up to the ministry. I do not think the religious institution would object. They objected to video films but people who want to buy it still can,” he said.
In the meantime, if “Cinema 500 km” obtains distribution, it will be possible for movie buffs in the Kingdom to not only see the film, but also retrace the steps of the film’s main character in order to see the film.