Saudi religious clerics ban film festival – blow to media reformers

Top Saudi Arabian religious clerics pressured government officials to cancel this week's Jeddah film festival leaving organizers scrambling to figure out how to reverse a process endorsed by Jeddah city officials as part of their summer tourist offering. Advocates for freer access to media in Saudi Arabia say the cancellation is part of a focused trend of cultural repression by the kingdom’s religious authorities.
KSA Jeddah Film Festival
Saudi filmmakers suffer the blows of the religious establishment.

BEIRUT, July 20, 2009 (MENASSAT) – Religious minders delivered a blow to cultural expression in the Saudi kingdom on Friday (July 17), amid accusations that powerful Saudi Islamic clerics pressured municipal authorities to cancel the 4th Jeddah Film Festival this week.

"Late last night (July 17), the governorate of Jeddah notified us of the festival's cancellation, after it received instructions from official parties. We were not told why," Mamdouh Salem, one of the Jeddah Film Festival organizers, told Reuters news agency on Saturday (July 18).

The Jeddah municipality had only days earlier billed the festival as part of the city's “Jeddah is Different” summer festival offerings. But in the three days since the announcement, there has been no official word as to why the film festival was cancelled.

Jeddah municipality spokesman Ahmad Al-Ghamdi told Arab News that the festival “lacked preparations,” although he did not clarify what the lacking elements were.

The cancellation of the Jeddah Film Festival comes after King Abdullah removed a number of conservative clerics from the Saudi government earlier this year, something that many thought would lead to a freer media environment.

But recent moves by Saudi’s religious establishment have made it clear that music and public cinema are heavily frowned upon.

According to AFP, one post on the government fatwa website recently said, "Attending the cinema and having access to it is taboo and is forbidden because most of what it displays is forbidden distractions that create disorder.”

Salem said that the festival was completely “under supervision” by the government authorities, and was surprised at the events cancellation because the festival was “presenting cinema in a positive way.”

More than 100 films were to be shown during the planned five-day festival, with British film directors being shuttled in to hold film workshops in coordination with the British Council in Saudi Arabia.

There were 45 Saudi films among the 71 films being considered for the $53,000 in prize money, including two feature length films.

Film panel judges Omani director Khaled Al-Zajali, Saudi producer Majdi Wadou, writer Halema Muzafar and United Arab Emirates writer Khaled Al-Bodour had been flown into Jeddah before the festival, and according to Arab news had already begun their work when the announcement was made on Friday.

Jeddah Film Festival joins a growing number of cultural events neutered by Saudi religious clerics, including an opera concert with French saprano Isabelle Poulenard who had her embassy-sponsored performance forbidden by religious clerics two days before her concert – despite gaining official approval.

Poulenard eventually performed after high-level diplomatic talks paved the way, an insider source told Reuters.

Another government fatwa stated, "Music and all other elements of distraction are considered evil."  It is routine for even Saudi Arabia's most famous entertainer, Mohammed Abdo, to face restrictions about where he can perform, despite playing to sold out concerts around the world.

Predictably, the canceling of the film festival has drawn criticism from the Arab blogosphere.

In a July 19 blog entry called “Nothing Changed,” prominent Saudi blogger, Saudi Jeans contextualized the cancellation of the Jeddah Film Festival in what he said has been a 30 year roll-back of a wave of liberalization that “had begun in the 60’s and 70’s” and ended with the bloody 1979 siege by Islamic dissidents of the Al Masjid Al-Haram (Grand Mosque) in Mecca.

“Following this event, Saudi Arabia experienced a scary rise of conservatism and the social liberalization that women were no longer allowed on national TV, and restrictions on their employment and participation in public life became so harsh," he wrote, leading him to ask, “What difference does 30 years make?”

One writer Nassaf, writing in the comments section of Saudi Jeans, said he was more optimistic about future prospects for cultural expression in Saudi Arabia. “Back in the 60’s and 70’s the cultural revolution was about ’sticking it to the man’, ‘not following the rules’ and ‘breaking the taboos’. That boiled down to butting heads with religion, among others, which was a sure nail in the coffin of that movement.”

He continued, “Today’s movement is more about ‘claiming your rights’, ‘openness to oneself and to others’ and ‘free market’. This movement is in line with the teachings of Islam and can be easily integrated in our lifestyles without having shy away from our background.”

Meanwhile, the festival’s main sponsor, Rotana, the largest Arab media network in the world, had made no public comments about the festival's cancellation.

Rotana is owned by Saudi billionaire Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, and is among a list of Saudi organizations and cultural groups suing for freer access to entertainment.