Rediscovering the silver screen in the land of Saud

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As the Kingdom opens its doors to cinema halls, it may be time to revisit a documentary that gives us a glimpse into the cinephilia of the average Saudi citizen

Saudi cinephiles reportedly fill up 80% of the seats in film theatres in Bahrain during vacation season.

Saudi Arabia — a country of extremes, where arenas that see public floggings and beheadings co-exist with luxurious malls; where the rule by a single family (of varied tribal loyalties but united by ties of blood) is enshrined in law; where gender equality is outlawed; the birthplace of Osama bin Laden.

In such a nation, is there space for cinephilia? How does one identify the spaces, the nuances, needed to create and appreciate cinema? And does the public, which is subjected to a literal squadron of the moral police, have a right to one of the more spiritual pleasures — the right to enjoy?

 

These are questions that pop up in my mind when you consider the fact that for the last 35 years the country has not allowed any cinema hall to open for fear of corrupting morality. More specifically, the country’s film industry is only about 11 years old (the first big budget Saudi film, Keif al-Hal?, came out in 2006) while the country is 85 years old. Love for cinema anywhere in the world is premised on the freedom to cherish moments of intimacy — those interstices, spaces between the walls of dialogue where a ray of communication can be felt rather than just seen or heard.

Passion for cinema requires a certain ability to enjoy the creation of art through the navarasas (nine fundamental moods). In an almost Sufi way, enjoying cinema requires the ability to surrender to it, in a way that you are made to dissolve your identity into that of the art unravelling in front of you. Can a country which until recently prohibited half of its highly educated population even from driving accommodate the joie de vivre and sense of abandon one gets on viewing such a source of comfort? Can a place that disallows anything but a very rigid, rigorous, seventh-century interpretation of Islam allow for such thoughts?

 

These are some questions that arise in my mind as I step into the shoes of Tariq, the lead character of the Saudi documentary, Cinema 500 km. The name suggests the story.

Tariq, a self-taught cinephile fan of Scorcese and Spielberg who did not know what a cinema hall was until recently, embarks on a journey with his friends — 500 km from his native Riyadh to the neighbouring Bahrain — to discover cinema on the big screen. He gets a passport made, his vehicle prepared especially for this purpose and money pooled in. He gets himself dressed for the occasion. And, at the end of it, it doesn’t matter to him what movie he encounters. What matters is the experience of coming face to face with the big screen.

Director Abdullah Al-Eyaf had to get special permission from the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information to shoot this film. He takes us to a video parlour in Riyadh, filled to the roof with movie CDs and DVDs and having more than 15,000 regular patrons. One of the customers there says he realised the meaning of a cinema theatre only a few years back.

 

There are cinema halls that reportedly existed in the Kingdom up to the 80s, though their functioning was marred by violence from the moral police. The halls are said to have shown films from other Arab countries, like Egypt and Turkey, some of them of the B-grade variety. So they had a situation where a country flush with petro-dollars was having the medium of entertainment but not any native industry of its own. The situation is reversed now. Saudi Arabia has its own films but they can’t be seen freely in their home country. The documentary Cinema 500 km itself was not viewed by many.

Going through the documentary, we realise that the recent decision by the Saudi administration to allow cinemas to re-open may have been motivated as much by the country’s business interests as by the need to promote its budding industry. As part of a Vision 2030 plan, its Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has announced a modernisation drive, where there will be less reliance on the ever-depleting hydrocarbons, where a more moderate version of Islam will be promoted, though how it will be achieved in a Kingdom whose very existence derives from a rigid interpretation is not clear. The Prince’s foreign policy moves such as the intervention in Yemen and the anti-corruption drive undertaken to consolidate power have hurt the people and image of the nation somewhat. And counter moves such as allowing women the freedom to drive and re-open cinema halls are most likely aimed at tempering criticism.

 

 

At the end of Cinema 500 km, we meet Jalal Kadhim, the manager of Bahrain’s Seef cinemas, among its biggest multiplexes. He says that the cinema halls of Bahrain are totally reliant on their Saudi customers, and that without the frequent weekend visits by Saudi movie-lovers the cinema business in Bahrain will suffer. He goes on to reveal that during summer vacation time, nearly 80% of the multiplex’s total business comes from Saudi citizens. Moral strictures apart, the desire of Saudis to be part of the globalised wave of cinephilia promoted by the Internet is apparent.

The Minister of Culture and Information has hoped, while making its announcement on the re-opening of cinemas, that the country will have 300 theatres, with 2,000 screens by 2030. If state patronage is forthcoming for the cinema industry, this may go hand-in-hand with it achieving some maturity by that time. A parallel can be drawn with the culturally rich Persian industry. Though about a century old and helped no doubt by the legacy of the great Persian civilisation, including its literature, Iran’s cinema was helped a great deal by the state. This applied to periods both before and after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, though the content shown saw a shift. The likes of Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Jafar Panahi and Majid Majidi may not have flourished without the support of the government and the cinephilia of the masses in the country, where film societies have been flourishing since the late 1940s.

Some indication of the desire of Saudi filmmakers there to bring out the minimalism of a Majidi, is given by movies like Haifaa al Mansour’s Wadjda (2012), the first Saudi film by a woman director and the country’s first submission to the Oscars.

 

 

About the 11-year-old eponymous girl who dreams of owning a bicycle so that she can defeat the school bully Abdullah, the film’s symbolism can be interpreted as cri de cœur for gender equality in Saudi Arabia. Aren’t Wadjda’s wish for a bicycle, and her working mother’s frequent tiffs with her driver following which he refuses to help her commute to office, a statement on the driving ban? The movie’s ending is cathartic for the two women protagonists — the mother shows a certain amount of courage after the girl’s father marries for a second time and leaves her. Wadjda defeats Abdullah in a race after being able to afford a bicycle. And the two look forward rather than backward.

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