The eastern city of Damman, Saudi Arabia held the country’s first official government-sponsored film festival earlier this year in May, despite the fact that movie theatres are illegal throughout the country. Some religious leaders believe that films are contrary to Islamic beliefs, and they have only been legally shown in private homes and small cultural clubs. Even then, many of the movies are heavily censored, and the film industry is often under fire for promoting lewd conduct, alcohol consumption, and showing interaction between male and female characters.
Sponsored by Damman Literary Club and The Saudi Society of Arts and Culture, the five-day festival featured 54 films from Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf and Arab countries, 34 of which were competing for the top prize—10,000 Saudi riyals and the Golden Palm Award. This year the inargural honor went to renowned Saudi director Abdullah Al Eyaf for his short film, “Kilo 500.”
A full-fledged film festival may have been unthinkable just a few years ago, but with Saudis’ increased access to media through satellite television and DVDs, interest in films and filmmaking has spiked. There have been informal, smaller festivals in the past, but this year’s Saudi Film Competition marks the first to receive official blessings, as well as funding. Saudi Minister of Culture and Information Iyad Madani made an appearance at the festival, and stated his support for leaving the issues surrounding movies open to debate.
Seen as a sign of King Abdullah’s commitment to modernize his country, the festival provides hope for those who aim to lift the movie theatre ban throughout the religious state of Saudi Arabia. “There are new laws that will be opening up the media environment in Saudi Arabia,” said Al-Ibrahim owner of Rotana and one of the largest donors of Egypt’s film industry, a large player in Arab film. “The question of cinemas is being talked about openly in the paper. It’s just a matter of getting the law and regulations in place.”
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