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The Saudi Arabian government has officially banned the opening of public cinemas in the kingdom following protests over the government considering the issuance of licenses for movie theaters across the country.
Saudi Interior Minister Prince Naif bin Abdulaziz reportedly made the decision following pressure from Saudi Mufti Sheikh Abd Al-Aziz Al-Sheikh to make the public screening of films illegal.
The news comes after extensive debate within Saudi society over the propriety of films.
The government has indicated a willingness to consider the opening of public movie theaters. This has been resisted by those who subscribe to the strict Wahhabist interpretation of Islam and believe films have the potential to debase the Islamic fabric of Saudi society. Wahhabism dominates the kingdom's religious establishment.
"The problem is not the government," Hussam Abu Sabra, CEO of Donya Film Productions, told The Media Line. "The government is trying to do something. The problem is some people in the government who they think it will degrade Islam and bring in bad ideas so they outright refuse it without negotiation."
"They don't understand why people want cinema, that film will be good for Saudi people," Abu Sabra continued. "People need food for the mind."
"But in the meantime a production company has nowhere to show their work," he added. "We can only market the films outside the Kingdom."
Silvio Saadi, CEO of Silver Grey Picture & Sound, agreed that the principle obstacle facing the development of Saudi Arabian film is cultural, not a lack of government interest.
"The announcement is really a surprise because everything we've been hearing has been very positive towards film making in the kingdom," Saadi said. "The problem this country faces is not where the government wants to go but that the majority of the people don't want to go there."
"One of the main problems for Saudis is having mixed theaters," Saadi explained. "We have mixed restaurants in Saudi, but at a cinema you have men and women entering a dark room and hanging out together."
Saadi's company was the first film and sound production company in the Kingdom.
"There used to be 8 or 9 theaters - then it was all shut down," he explains. "We started a film production company when no one dared do this," he remembers.
Saadi says that over the years the Kingdom has witnessed a number of small steps towards public film screenings.
"Over the past few years there has been a lot of talk about them giving licenses again," he said. "A few months ago I heard they had given a license for a theater in a mall in Jeddah and last year we were commissioned by the King's library to produce two full-length IMAX films, which we shot here in Saudi. But while there is one IMAX theater in an ARAMCO compound in the Eastern province and the King has ordered the opening of two more IMAX theaters in two more provinces, they are within private compounds."
Most film production companies base their businesses on TV programs, commercials and documentaries. "We work for the Ministry of Health, the Saudi Tourism Commission and the private sector," Saadi said. "The only problem in Saudi is producing feature films because we can't make money out of it."
"It's frustrating as a producer," he said. "It doesn't take you anywhere."
Despite the restrictions on Saudi filmmakers, Saudi Arabia is host to Rotana, the largest production company in the Middle East, and industry analysts say dozens of Saudi films have been screened in international film festivals.
"We have a lot of cinema enthusiasts and there are lots of short films made by Saudi directors," Ahmed Al-Omran, an influential Saudi blogger, told The Media Line. "They are more for artistic expression and are not screened publicly, but it's only a matter of time until we have proper movie theaters."
The first commercial screening of a Saudi movie in over 30 years took place last month under much fanfare. "It was a special screening at a cultural center," Al-Omran said. "People could go and buy tickets and watch a movie but it was only for a week or so."
Despite street protests by Saudis opposed to the screenings, thousands of people were reported to have attended.
The Media Line website