Secret Cinema Group Slowly Transforming Saudi Culture

In a country with no public cinemas and where only a few films have been shown to the public in more than three decades, it is a radical step: a handful of film-makers in Saudi Arabia has launched a secret cinema group, showing their own films that explore social and political issues such as women’s rights, the lives of migrant workers, urbanisation and the belief in black magic.

Last Thursday, after evening prayers, more than 60 people attended the first screening by the Red Wax secret cinema in a large warehouse in the south-western city of Abha. Directed to the clandestine event by text message, they crowded inside the hired space, which was then bolted shut.

Most sat on cheap red plastic chairs placed in rows before a makeshift screen made from a large white sheet, but as the audience was larger than the organizers had expected, some stood. As the lights dimmed, nervousness gave way to quiet anticipation and in silence they watched a film about the lives of migrant workers on one of the country’s major building projects. After the screening the audience discussed the issues it raised and the ban on cinema in the kingdom.

“I was really nervous; everyone was nervous,” said the film’s director, one founder of Red Wax. “We didn’t have a plan if [police came]. Everyone parked away from the place. We sent them directions by text message to their mobiles or rang them. Our fears are just to get caught or sent to jail.”

Cinemas were shut in the 1970s down after the assassination of King Faisal, who was criticized for introducing television to Saudi Arabia. Religious conservatives consider cultural activities such as films and concerts to be immoral and against Islamic values.

There were signs of liberalization with the launch in 2006 of the annual European film festival in Jeddah, which shows films to a select audience in embassies and consulates. The first official Saudi film festival followed in May 2008 in the eastern city of Dammam, although it has not been repeated. Later that year the comedy Menahi, financed and produced by King Abdullah’s billionaire nephew Prince Waleed bin Talal’s Rotana media, became the first film, apart from a few children’s cartoons, to be shown publicly for 30 years…


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