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Saudi filmmakers suffer in a land with no movie theaters

Directors and others live for the Gulf Film Festival in Dubai, where their films about the oppressiveness of life in the Islamic kingdom can finally be seen in public.

September 16, 2009|Jeffrey Fleishman

RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA — Driving through the desert night, Mohammed Khalif skids left and pulls up at an apartment with walls the color of pink grapefruit.

Young men sit on a couch, reveling in the intricacy of Stanley Kubrick and chiding the sentimentality of Steven Spielberg. A debate ensues over genius. The usual suspects are trotted out: Italian neo-realism, the French New Wave. A Spielberg defender blurts: "You wouldn't even be here if it weren't for Spielberg. Look what he's done."

A brief pause. The air conditioner in the apartment seems overworked. Pizza is ordered. Someone flicks a switch. Lights dim, the screen brightens. A girl with wild hair descends stairs and slowly, layer by layer, disappears into a black abaya, head scarf and a veil. She seems a butterfly in reverse. She says nothing. A door opens and she steps outside, the same color as the night.

The lights come up; Khalif and the men wait to hear a visitor's reaction. They are pensive, confident, ready to defend, hoping that their Sony Z-1 camera and editing tips downloaded from the Internet have captured the oppressiveness of life in this Islamic kingdom.

The pacing is erratic, the sound echoes, but "Shadow" is powerful, one of seven short films produced since 2008 by the Talashi Film Group, a collection of Saudi movie buffs, including a former IKEA salesman, who met on the Web several years ago and became vanguard filmmakers in a country where movie theaters are forbidden.

Cruise the highways and boulevards of Riyadh and it appears all there in flash and neon: cool marble malls, Starbucks, plastic surgery clinics and enough bling to drain a billionaire's bank account. But no cineplex. Movies made here are hustled out of the country to be shown in foreign theaters, even as Hollywood imports can be rented at video stores or seen on any number of the 500 or so satellite channels.

"How can you change a society with film if your society can't go to the cinema?" says Turki Rwaita, the group's editor, who, like the other members, also acts, writes, produces and has a fondness for fast food and late nights. "Our main goal is the Gulf Film Festival in Dubai. That's what keeps us alive."

It has become a Saudi aficionado's rite of passage to fly to the United Arab Emirates or Bahrain and gorge on movies for a weekend. Director Abdullah Eyaf distilled this forced wanderlust in his film "Cinema 500 km," which tracks a film lover's whimsical journey across desert borders and into the darkness of a movie house.

Films by Talashi range from lighthearted to searing. They are low-budget, but they speak to a sense of personal isolation in a land of harsh tradition and omnipresent religion. "According to Local Time" is a man's unsuccessful quest to buy gas and food as stores around him close for the call to prayer. "Sunrise/Sunset" is the tale of a boy who is beaten at school, raped under an overpass and arrested by the religious police. "I Don' Wanna" is a playful, if biting, romp against conformity.

Abdulmuhsin Mutairi wants his films to matter, but wonders how. He sits at the end of the couch and speaks slowly, as if every word is a ticket to an interesting journey. Like the others in the group, he wears jeans, not a white tunic; his long combed-back hair is not covered by the traditional red-and-white headdress. The night is his time.

He leaves his job selling medical products and drives to this apartment of cables, DVDs and cigarette smoke. In a city where cafes close early and officials from the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice patrol endlessly, the flat is a refuge, a makeshift studio to talk until dawn about scripts, new projects and the narrative of his nation, where the Koran dictates concepts of art and beauty.

"Making films is really more comedy than tragedy for us. We're like Europe in the Middle Ages," he says. "Our society doesn't care about this kind of art. It cares about what happens outside in other Islamic countries. They'll give $200 million or $300 million to Afghanistan, but they'll do nothing to improve the situation inside this country. . . .

"There's poverty -- just go out to these neighborhoods -- there's drugs, and what about women's rights?"

There are aspiring female filmmakers in the country, but none in the apartment. There aren't many in the group's films, either. The actress in "Shadow" was hired from Syria because Saudi women aren't allowed to be alone with men who aren't their husbands or relatives. It makes casting tough, and those Saudi actresses who might be available, the ones who work in state-approved TV, want a lot more pay than a soda and a slice of pizza.

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