Sundance, Saudi style

ROBERT LACEY, author of "The Kingdom," is writing a social history of Saudi Arabia in the last 30 years.

AMID THE GLOOMY news emerging from the Middle East, it is encouraging to report one item of cultural progress: the convening of Saudi Arabia’s first-ever film festival. This in Islam’s heartland, where cinemas do not officially exist.

Cannes it is not. Held in the austere exhibition galleries of Jeddah’s Science and Technology Center, the film festival lacks celebrities, red carpet, popping flashguns and, saddest of all, popcorn. On the evening I attended, a Friday night, half the lobby was occupied by the projectionist and the docents of the center saying their prayers. Following another hallowed Saudi tradition, the screening commenced 30 minutes late.

The cinematic fare can, perhaps, best be compared to early Sundance -- a program of gritty and creative low-budget “shorts” ranging in length from five minutes to an hour. Half of the 16 productions were shot by Saudis inside the kingdom, with the remainder coming from the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf. Many offer a bleak and self-critical view of what oil riches have wrought in these traditional societies.


In “Mohmalat,” a Kuwaiti production whose title could be translated as “Careless” or “Garbage,” we see a Botoxed Arab temptress having her feet manicured at home by an Asian servant. Her baby lies in its crib crying, unattended, while she exchanges text messages with male admirers. We see her overweight husband chasing other women and sniffing cocaine. The maid goes out to the garbage site to set down a bulging plastic trash bag -- from which, in the film’s final scene, emerges the cry of a baby.

In “Khauf” (“Fear”), another dark drama, a group of bored and idle young men find themselves dragged into Sopranos-style bloodshed when their SUV runs out of gas. To a Western eye, the soulless and scary wastes of the affluent Arab suburbs portrayed in these movies evoke nothing so much as Tony Soprano’s New Jersey.

A more lyrical note is struck in “Tahat al-Shams” (“Under the Sun”), in which a couple of boys sneak off to go fishing during the fast of Ramadan. This French-flavored movie from the United Arab Emirates centers on a child’s wrestling with his conscience: Should he break the fast and eat the potato chip offered by his less-observant friend?

The festival carries the imprimatur of the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information and of Prince Abdul Majid bin Abdul Aziz, the half-brother of the king and governor of Mecca. These are strong signs of official approval, and bowing to religious sensitivities, the organizers have been careful to announce the occasion locally as “visual shows” rather than as a film festival. There have been no cinemas in Saudi Arabia since the Islamic awakening of the 1980s, and it isn’t clear whether any will be allowed to reopen. So far, there are no signs of the fundamentalist protesters who disrupted Saudi Arabia’s first international book fair, held in Riyadh this year.

In fact, there are scant signs of moviegoers of any sort. I shared the cinema with just five other viewers, though the projectionist reported audiences of 30 to 40 people earlier in the day. The one area of controversy concerns the festival’s admissions policy. All sessions are designated as “family” occasions, which means that single men -- or men in groups -- are banned, but single women or groups of women are permitted without male chaperons. To gain admittance, I needed to be accompanied by a woman, and my black-robed young chaperon, wearing a hijab (a head scarf, rather than a full veil), kindly coughed up the $6 for my ticket.

The landmark occasion cannot be said to have set the kingdom on fire. As I drove home along the Corniche, Jeddah’s bustling beach road, I was struck by the contrast between the echoing atmosphere of the sparsely attended Science Center event and the bright lights of the crowded amusement parks and hookah cafes -- the brash and materialistic culture that many of these short films question.

Still, such critiques have not previously been showcased so publicly in Saudi Arabia, and never on film. With the reign of King Abdullah approaching its first anniversary on Tuesday, they are a small sign of change.