Cut! The film festival is stopped

Contrary to popular belief, women are not banned from driving in Saudi Arabia. There’s no law that says they can’t drive. It’s just that, er … they have a lot of trouble getting a licence.

The same can be said of the Jeddah Film Festival: not banned exactly, but stopped. The five-day event was due to open at 9am last Saturday. At 11pm on Friday, festival director Mamdouh Salem got a phone call from the Jeddah municipality informing him it was cancelled. A municipality official told Arab News the festival “lacked preparations”, but did not elaborate.

Lack of preparation is obviously not the real reason for its cancellation – except, perhaps, in the sense that key elements of Saudi society are psychologically ill-prepared for such a traumatic experience as a film festival.

The organisers had brought in more than 50 directors and 71 films from the Gulf countries, plus other films from Europe and Japan. A detailed programme was published in the Saudi Gazette. The organisers had apparently gone through hoops to reassure the authorities that nothing “untoward” would be shown and had deliberately included “a number of films produced by conservative directors or whose purpose was to portray Islam in a positive light”.

So what went wrong? The Jeddah film festival has actually been running since 2006, though in previous years it called itself a “visual exhibition” to minimise the risk of causing moral panic. This year, perhaps getting over-confident, it “came out” as a full-blown film festival. This year, it also included non-Saudi films for the first time. 

It seems, therefore, that – as often happens in the Middle East – the organisers overstepped some invisible mark and the authorities (probably in the shape of Prince Nayef, the reactionary interior minister) decided enough was enough.

For no logical reason, the word “film” causes tremors among the kingdom’s religious conservatives who associate it with immorality and licentiousness. (They used to feel the same way about television but eventually they got over it.)

Another factor in the cancellation, as the Sand Gets In My Eyes blog points out, may be the campaign that conservatives are waging against Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, led by his brother, Khaled. Alwaleed’s company, Rotana, was the festival’s main sponsor and had put up the SR200,000 prize money.

Alwaleed is liberal-minded and, as a multi-billionaire, has the financial clout to push at Saudi Arabia’s red lines. He is noted for symbolically progressive gestures, such as employing a female pilot to fly one of his planes and re-establishing cinema in the kingdom is one of his current passions.

The feud with his brother came into the open last month (hereand here) when Prince Khaled accused him of “spreading depravity and lust” with his “corrupting projects” and called for his assets to be fozen.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Jeddah summer festival (of which the film festival was to have been a part) is going ahead as planned with fireworks, folklore displays, roller skating, shopping bazaars – in fact, almost any activity that isn’t going to exercise the brain cells too much.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 20 July 2009