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.
Talashi director Abdulmohsen Dhabaan poked fun at this dilemma in “Three Men and a Woman,” in which a hyperbolic producer explains to a reluctant actor that he will play the parts of both men and women: “This is a whole new concept of acting. . . . An Oscar, I tell you. It’s experimental. It’s modernist.” In the final shot, the camera pans to an invisible director -- the insinuation being she’s a woman.
Filmmakers were optimistic in December when a Saudi comedy produced by a company owned by Prince Waleed bin Talal opened for a limited engagement in a Riyadh cultural center. The film, “Menahi,” was shown before mixed audiences and sparked protests by fundamentalists who regard celluloid fantasy as devil’s play, especially if men and women watch it side by side. The controversy led Saudi authorities in June to cancel the annual Jidda Film Festival -- the country’s only movie gathering.
In 2006, Talal produced the kingdom’s first feature film, “Keif al-Hal,” or “How’s It Going?” Filmed in Dubai but set in Saudi Arabia, the comedy-drama examined a young woman’s struggle for identity. Its Saudi co-star outraged clerics by appearing unveiled. It was shown on TV and came out one year after Haifaa Mansour, a woman and one of the country’s best known directors, released “Women Without Shadows,” an internationally acclaimed documentary about the sequestered lives of women in the gulf.
“Movies are a symbol of the war between liberals and conservatives,” says Aysha Alkusayer, a TV and screen writer.
Talashi and another group, Qatif Friends, have been attracting younger voices.
Their shorts aren’t destined for wide distribution, but “Sunrise/Sunset,” directed by Mohammed Dhahri, who recently moved to Canada, where he plans to study film, won a prize at the Gulf Film Festival. It and “According to Local Time,” directed by Khalif, will be shown at an upcoming Beirut International Film Festival.
Khalif can be restless and he relishes visiting festivals to discuss films with fellow auteurs and write criticism for newspapers. He travels on a bohemian’s budget, searching for junket packages that include free hotel rooms and discounted meals. He wonders how cold it is in Germany during the Berlinale in February.
“Films are my passion, so I have to do it,” he says. “You have to have hope. Look at radio and satellite TV. When they first came to Saudi, society tried to push them away. It’s the same with film. We’ve been accused of being controversial for controversy’s sake, but we’re dealing with issues that are being ignored. . . . We don’t want to make just entertainment.”
There’s a question of how far to push.
“We showed ‘Sunrise/Sunset’ in small, private screenings, but we got in trouble for that and had to stop,” he says. “You have to be careful. Some of the guys worry. Most of us want to leave here. We know we can’t have the careers we want if we stay.”
Khalif’s story lines tend toward the bold. His screenplay “Garbage Bag” depicts a woman in a public restroom. Her abaya has been stolen.
Knowing she can’t leave without being covered, she drapes herself in a garbage bag. He’d have better odds flying solo to the moon than finding a Saudi actress for this one. He shakes his head at the crazy thoughts running through his mind.
In the short “I Don’ Wanna,” a row of men dressed in starched tunics and red-and-white headdresses sit in a scene of utter conformity, listening to Beethoven. In rambles Khalif’s character: brash, wearing jeans, a T-shirt, a medallion dangling from his neck.
Beethoven gives way to the raucousness of Pink Floyd and Marilyn Manson. The tunic men refuse to give Khalif a seat. He turns his back, drops his pants, squats and shows his displeasure by relieving himself while the conformists look on in horror.