Friday, April 28, 2006

First Saudi feature film

Daring to Use the Silver Screen to Reflect Saudi Society

Hassan M Fattah

New York Times 28 April 2006

RIYADH — It is time for Sahar to marry, but she dreams of a career, not a husband. Her fundamentalist brother wants to pick her mate and is already planning her life as a homemaker.
In "Keif al Hal" ("How's It Going?"), a big-budget Arab film due out this summer, family members find themselves torn between modernity and tradition.
The plot may seem mundane but in important ways, "Keif al Hal" is a landmark project with big ambitions. It is the first feature film from Saudi Arabia, a country with not a single legal movie theater.
The movie, financed by a Saudi prince, aims not only to raise delicate questions about social oppression but also to generate a Saudi movie industry and force the opening of theaters, some of which are reportedly under construction without licenses or legal status.
"Keif al Hal" follows the release of several short films and documentaries by Saudi filmmakers over the past two years that do not shy away from controversial themes. "Thalal al Sampt" ("The Oppression of Silence"), by Abdullah al-Moheissin, is an art house science-fiction film about government oppression, while "Cinema 500 km" chronicles one man's drive to Bahrain to watch a movie, a statement about Saudi Arabia's narrow personal freedoms.
But "Keif al Hal," produced by Rotana, one of the Middle East's fastest growing media companies, which is owned by the Saudi billionaire Prince Walid bin Talal, takes things several steps further, with a relatively big-budget, mainstream film that aims to provoke questions.
"I am correcting a big mistake, that is all," said Prince Walid, sitting in his office high above Riyadh. "I want to tell Arab youth: You deserve to be entertained, you have the right to watch movies, you have the right to listen to music."
The mere existence of the film will be a challenge, he says. Saudi Arabia does produce dramas and soap operas for television, and satellites dishes can pick up movie channels and music videos, though they are not legal. But movie theaters, where the sexes can mingle in the dark, have until now remained out of the question. Last year, a movie theater in Jidda opened briefly to show children's films, but the vice patrol shuttered it within weeks.
Prince Walid, who commands special power within Saudi Arabia, is betting he can present the vice police with a fait accompli.
"There is nothing in Islam — and I've researched this thoroughly — not one iota that says you can't have movies," he said. "So what I am doing right now is causing change."
Nonetheless, he shot the film, written by an Egyptian and filmed by a Canadian, in Dubai.
"Keif al Hal," which is set in a Riyadh home, begins with the college graduation ceremony of Sahar, played by a Jordanian actress, Mais Hamdan. Sultan, an orphaned cousin of the family, played by a Saudi heartthrob named Hisham al-Huwaish, plays out his romantic dream of becoming a filmmaker in a place where the arts are not respected, while staring twinkly-eyed at Sahar, his secret love.
Sahar's elder brother, Khaled, a fundamentalist, begins dictating what she needs to do.
The tensions grow when Khaled comes to believe that his sister is having a secret romance.
"The struggle within the different elements of Saudi society today is almost as strong as that between America and the Arab world," said Ayman S. Halawani, the producer. "Many families have moderates and extremists. I don't mean terrorists, but the bedrock of where these terrorists come from. And we want to show the struggle that happens within."
Among the film's firsts, says Prince Walid, is the first Saudi movie actress, Hind Muhammad, who plays Duniya, Sahar's best friend. For years Ms. Muhammad, 25, worked on Saudi radio in soap operas, and later as a voice on cartoons. Until now, Saudi dramas have always used women from other countries.
Her arrival is thus another notable advancement for Saudi women, who until a few years ago were completely hidden from the public. Now their photographs appear in newspapers and they have their own identification cards rather than appearing as names on their husbands' or fathers' cards. Women are now training as architects and lawyers, divorce is easier and women no longer need a man to register a company.
"I believe in social change, in advancing, and not in staggering," Prince Walid said. "If all this can help the cause of ladies, advance the cause of social change, I will do it for sure."
The film makes use of jokes and one-liners to tell the story of Saudi Arabia's hidden lives. In one scene the fundamentalist Khaled and his friend crash in on the grandfather and several of his grandchildren, believing they were planning to watch a racy film, only to find the grandfather giving a religious sermon. In another scene, a character sends his phone number in a spitball to a woman, a common Saudi dating technique, only to discover that the woman, covered from head to toe, is his mother.
Mr. Halawani, who lived in the United States for 16 years and has years of experience in movie finance, believes he can make money on the film.
He plans to chase Saudi audiences where they play this summer, with the movie opening in Cannes, London, Beirut, Cairo and numerous resorts in the Arab world. Only after that, the prince says, will it go out on satellite, where it will reach a mainstream audience.
"We are changing perceptions, because they are not reality," said the prince, who said he planned to make several other Saudi films this year. "We will change the way people think."
The vice police? "I'm going to face them, not confront them," he said, "by logic, by being rational, by saying the things that make sense."


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