Saudi film festival cancelled in setback for reformers

RIYADH Sat Jul 18, 2009 10:58pm IST

RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia's only film festival has been canceled, dealing a blow to reformist hopes of an easing of clerical control over culture that had been raised by the low-key return of cinemas in December.

In a country where movie theatres had been banned for almost three decades, the Jeddah Film Festival presents aspiring Saudi film makers and actors with a rare opportunity to mingle with more experienced peers from other countries.

"Late last night, 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 festival's organizers, said Saturday.

He did not elaborate.

Saudi writer Abdullah Al-Alami said he was not sure why the fourth Jeddah festival, expected to start in the Islamic kingdom's most liberal city Saturday, was canceled.

"However, there is a trend of attacking cultural festivities ... This is a dark day for art and literature in our modern history," he said.

King Abdullah has tried cautious reforms in the U.S. ally, which has no elected parliament, but diplomats say he is facing resistance from conservatives opposing changes.

Many religious conservatives in the kingdom believe films from more liberal Arab countries such as Egypt could violate religious taboos. Some also view cinema and acting, as a form of dissembling, as inconsistent with Islam.

"The film festival was canceled upon indirect instructions from the interior ministry," said an official at the information and culture ministry.

LOW-KEY CINEMA RETURN

Cinema made a low-key return in December with the showing in Jeddah and another southern city of the Saudi comedy "Menahi."

The movie, produced by a company owned by Saudi royal Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, attracted such large numbers that it had to be screened up to eight times a day. It was shown before mixed audiences, a rare thing to happen in a country that bans unrelated men and women from mixing.

But a sharp reaction by Ibrahim al-Ghaith, the ex-head of the kingdom's religious police, showed the opposition from the establishment to efforts to open up the society.

Ghaith said cinema was an evil but he eased his tone 24 hours later to say that cinemas should show good things and not violate teachings of Islam.

In February, King Abdullah removed Ghaith and another influential cleric in a wide government reshuffle.

Prince Alwaleed later stated his support for this year's Jeddah festival by donating proceeds from the comedy film.

But when it was brought to the more conservative capital Riyadh, Saudi newspapers reported that conservative Saudis, including volunteers with the Saudi religious police, tried to disturb the showing of the movie.

Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz later signaled his backing for the religious police saying in June they were on a par with the security forces.

(Editing by Ulf Laessing and Ralph Boulton)