JEDDAH: They howled, clapped and ate popcorn -- a normal cinema scene elsewhere, but revolutionary in Saudi Arabia where films have not played
publicly for decades. Massive lines snaked out from the King Abdul Aziz Cultural Centre as Jeddah residents queued up to see the first feature film open to the public for 30 years, hoping the event heralded a big change in the ultra-conservative kingdom's cultural scene.
In what took hush-hush negotiations with senior political officials and the strict religious police, the Red Sea port of Jeddah and the nearby city of Taif allowed the Rotana entertainment group, owned by powerful Saudi tycoon Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, to show its new comedy "Manahi" for nine days. "The hall was filled up till the very last seat during the two shows scheduled each day, forcing us to add a third show after midnight,” said organizer Mamdouh Salem .
Decades ago film lovers in Saudi Arabia would crowd into clubs and halls to watch the same movies enjoyed throughout the Arab world. But in the 1970s, clerics of the ultra-conservative Wahhabist version of Islam cracked down and banned cinemas as having a corrupting influence on society.
The taboo has been broken somewhat in recent years, with videos, satellite television and movies shown surreptitiously at night in popular coffee shops. But to see a movie in a real theatre, Saudis still have to travel to neighboring countries.
The local religious police, from the feared Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, inspected the hall ahead of the screenings to ensure that women and men would be separated. With women sitting apart in the balcony, and men and boys on the ground floor below them, the hall echoed with raucous laughter.
"This is a hall with 1,200 seats. It was not built for movies, and the projector is not made for 35mm films," Salem said. On hand for the opening, "Manahi" star Fayez Malki said he was pleased at the turnout. "This encourages me to play in more Saudi films and I plan to make a new one with Rotana," he said.
Roua Mohammed, an interior designer, said "she visits Cairo three times a year to check out the latest releases in the theatres." Despite the success in Jeddah, it was not yet clear whether Rotana would be able to show "Manahi" in Riyadh, where the religious police are much tougher and government officials more conservative.