Arts and Movies: Comedy heralds return of cinema to Saudi Arabia
- Comedy heralds return of cinema to Saudi Arabia
The Guardian, Monday 22 December 2008
Reuters in Riyadh
Cinema has made a low-key return to Saudi Arabia after a three-decade absence, but a sharp reaction by the religious police chief shows efforts to relax Saudi's strict Islamic laws face tough opposition.
A locally-produced comedy, Menahi, premiered in two cultural centres in Jeddah and Taif this month before mixed-gender audiences, a taboo in Saudi Arabia whose strict Islamic rules ban unrelated men and women from mixing.
Turnout for the movie, produced by billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal's media company Rotana, was so big the film had to be played eight times a day over a 10-day period, the organisers said.
It had to be stopped in Taif due to overcrowding in the hall, Rotana spokesman Ibrahim Badi said. Showing the film was the latest attempt to introduce reforms by King Abdullah, who has said the world's largest oil exporter cannot stand still while the world changes around it.
Political analysts say Bin Talal could not have gone ahead without the blessing of the royals.
"We have obtained permission from the Information Ministry and from the governor of Mecca to show the movie in Jeddah and Taif," Badi said. The province of Mecca is governed by Prince Khaled al-Faisal, a reformist and son of the late King Faisal. Badi could not immediately say if Rotana intended to show the movie in other provinces of the kingdom.
While the kingdom's Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Shaikh has not commented on the issue, the head of Saudi Arabia's religious police condemned cinemas as a pernicious influence.
"Our position on this is clear - ban it. That is because cinema is evil and we do not need it. We have enough evil already," said Ibrahim al-Ghaith, the head of the religious police, whose official title is the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.
He later toned down his remarks, saying that cinema could be tolerated if it does not "violate Islamic law". Al-Ghaith is the kingdom's second most influential cleric and his comments were widely carried by Saudi newspapers on Saturday.
Local media have devoted little coverage to the film, a decision interpreted by some in Saudi Arabia as an attempt to avoid antagonising the powerful religious establishment.
Saudi Arabia had some film theatres in the 1970s but the conservative clerical establishment stamped out the industry. Film buffs had to travel to neighbours such as Bahrain to see films in cinemas.
Robert Fisk: Making movies the Afghan way
Cinema was banned under the Taliban, but film-makers are once again at work inside Afghanistan. Robert Fisk visits a set near Bagram
Thursday, 20 November 2008
Drive north of Kabul for an hour, turn left into a grey desert and head east for fifteen minutes, the sand shawling up the side of the windows until an armed man in the uniform of the Iranian police stops you before a forbidding compound of watchtowers, mud walls and razor wire. For a brief moment, that willing suspension of disbelief - I can see the inmates sitting on the sand beyond the iron gate – I forget that this is an Afghan movie set, and that Daoud Wahab, the producer of 'The White Rock' is sitting in front of me. "Looks real, huh?" he asks over his shoulder. It does.
For incredibly, as Afghanistan sinks back into the anarchy which became its natural state these past 29 years, Afghan film-makers are producing movies of international quality, turning out pictures which prove – even amid war – that a country's tragedy can be imaginatively recreated for its people. Safaid Sang – Dari (Persian) for White Rock – was an Afghan refugee detention camp inside Iran whose Iranian guards helped to massacre more than 630 of their prisoners in 1998 after inmates protested at their treatment. The atrocity – largely unknown in the West – ended after two Iranian helicopters strafed the Afghans with machine guns. Quite a story. Quite a movie.
"I'm really hoping for something big for this," Wahab says as he eases himself into the producer's folding canvas chair inside the prison gate. "We built all the mud walls, bought the razor wire, constructed the concrete lavatories – we even made fake shit to put all over the floor – and I found a real Iranian flag in the 'souk' in Kabul." It snaps above us now in the desert wind, the silken split-onion symbol of the Islamic Republic between red and green, the banner fringed with gold. The guards even speak with the right accent because some are half-Iranian. At least one of the actors was himself a prisoner in the real camp.
The Afghan actors squat beside an inner fence of wire, pleading with family visitors for help while the 'guards', immaculately dressed in near-perfect Iranian uniforms – Wahab and director Zubair Farghand searched the internet for photographs which showed cap badges and insignia of rank – shout abuse at their charges. One young man with an American rifle – the real Iranian police do indeed have US weapons – walks up to a 'prisoner' and kicks him brutally in the back, pulling out a cosh and bashing him on the legs.
"I think he enjoys beating these people – he's grown into the part," Wahab says sharply. He paid £30 for each of the 64 refugee tents to be sewn and patched together in the bazaar. They are a distressing backdrop to the White Rock camp where the dust and wind bleach out the colour of the landscape, even the great mountains that shoulder their way across the landscape, the foothills of the Panshir Valley. The movie, of course, is called 'The White Rock'.
But unkind thoughts move through my mind. When the Third Reich was collapsing, didn't Goebbels produce an epic movie about Frederick the Great to boost the morale of German troops? And – while I made sure that Daoud Wahab didn't take offence at the Hitler parallel – wasn't there a certain irony that his film was being shot scarcely three miles from the vast American base where Afghans prisoners are held in their hundreds, even as we sit in this desert today, and where US personnel have sadistically tortured – perhaps still do torture – their inmates. Why not make a film about this far more contemporary violence?
"If we get a chance in the future, I'm sure we will," Wahab says – I am not entirely convinced by this – "and there will come a time. But we don't need problems from the Americans now. Yes, there is a prison in Baghram, and there is mistreatment there, but now we are completing this earlier piece of history. We've told the Americans we are making this film here, just in case they wonder why there's another 'prison' in the area." On cue, a US chopper comes thundering over the desert and a C-130 transport sails high above us in the yellow, sand-coloured sun.
"A part of Iranian society had a madness towards the Afghans," Wahab says. "There were social, economic problems at the time. There was a lot of prejudice against Afghans because the refugees provided cheap labour in Iran and contractors therefore preferred Afghan labour rather than Iranians. When the refugees started complaining about their bad treatment, something snapped. But can you blame the Afghans for protesting? Iran had taken tens of thousands of refugees fleeing first the Russians. then the 'mujahedin' and then the Taliban -- but these prisoners even had to rent boots to walk in the faeces encrusted on the floor of the camp latrines. When they found prisoners gambling at night, each of the Afghans was given a hundred lashes by the Iranian police."
A camera moves through the prisoners on a 'dolly' – a small railway track – while another is hoisted above them by crane. This is real movie-making, even if the entire budget is only Pounds Sterling 34,000. Homayoun Paiz sits down beside me, 'blood' seeping through a wad of bandages wrapped round his filthy, bearded face. ?I am the hero," he announces. And, I ask – I want my suspicions confirmed – does he die at the end of the film. "Of course," Paiz says. "In the helicopter attack."
We have met before, in the days after the overthrow of the Taliban, when Afghanistan's surviving film community found that the gunmen of the most obscurantist militia in the world had bulldozed a pit in Kabul and used it to burn every foot of film they could find. Paiz's his friends hid original Afghan movies and archive documentary footage, letting the Taliban cremate old Russian and Indian films of which there were copies in Moscow and Mumbai. One of the 'old guard' directors, Siddiq Barmaq, is now himself a leading film-maker and has confronted the US occupation of his country today. His new film, 'Opium Fields', tells the story of two American soldiers who try to escape the country in an old Russian tank – only to find an Afghan family living inside the wreck. The movie has just won the Critics Award at the Rome International Film Festival.
In all, 630 Afghan prisoners – women as well as men -- are believed to have died in the original camp massacre, which lasted for six hours. Some of the prisoners managed to escape and hid in the mountains. Daoud Azimi was one of them and plays an Iranian police guard in the film. What does it feel like to wear the uniform of his oppressors? "I feel good," he says, "because I can actually show the world what they did." We drive back to the broken highway to the east. An American convoy races past us at speed, four-by-fours with blacked-out windows guarded by Humvees, US troops hunched over machine-guns on the roof. Daoud Wahab has plenty of material for his next film. No doubt Homayoun Paiz will play the hero. And die at the end.
Jenin Wins First Arab Emmy
By IslamOnline.net & News Agencies
Tue. Nov. 25, 2008
AMMAN — A TV series depicting a bittersweet love story set during the 2002 Israeli onslaught on the Palestinian refugee camp of Jenin has won Jordan the prestigious International Emmy Award, the first ever by an Arab country.
"It's a very well-done and successful work," Yasser Qbeilat, of Jordan's Arab Telemedia Productions, the producer of the Al-Igtiyah series, told Agence France Presse (AFP) on Tuesday, November 25.
The 2007 drama won the newly-established Telenovela category at the annual International Emmy Awards held in New York on Monday night.
It tells the story of Mustafa, a young Palestinian who falls in love with Israeli Jew Yael against the backdrop of destruction and chaos caused by the Israeli atrocious invasion of his Jenin refugee camp.
Israeli occupation forces started sealing off the camp, home to 15,000 people, on April 2, 2002 and declared it a closed military zone a day later.
After failing to storm their way because of heroic resistance by Palestinians, Israeli forces brought in 400 tanks and US-made Apache helicopters.
It also summoned reservists, special forces and commandoes, with the number of amassed troops put at around 5000.
The Israeli army later admitted murdering hundreds of Palestinians in the camp, in what then UN chief Kofi Annan described as an "appalling" massacre.
Al-Igtiyah is the first time ever the Emmy awards, known as the Oscars of the television industry, has been given to an Arabic series.
Producers say making a series depicting the 2002 Israeli massacres in Jenin was not an easy task.
"As a private production company, it was a big challenge to produce such a work," insists Qbeilat.
The drama was shot on location in Syria with Jordanian, Syrian and Palestinian actors.
It cost the Jordanian producers more than three million dollars.
Al-Igtiyah was neglected by Arab satellite channels and broadcasted only on Lebanon's LBC satellite TV during Ramadan.
"All other networks decided to ignore the series because of sensitivities related to Israel," said a production industry source.
The series director Shawqi Al Majiri has once described his work as an attempt to shed light on the sufferings of the Palestinian people after they became just numbers in news bulletins.
Abu Dhabi television had produced a documentary film on the massacre titled, "After Jenin," documenting gross human rights violations carried out by Israeli forces.
The English-medium film was shot just minutes after the Israeli army withdrew from Jenin, leaving behind a trail of blood and stories of horror.
It included footage of what happened in Jenin, with eyewitness reports, as well as interviews with well-known figures commenting on what happened.
Cairo Film Festival 2008
Islam Through the Western Cinema Lens
Thu. Nov. 27, 2008
By Osama Saffar
The organizers of Cairo Film Festival – held between November 18 - 28, 2008– were not only content with dedicating a section for films tackling the life of Muslims in Western countries under the title of "Islam’s Tolerance in the International Cinema", but also picked one of those films for the opening evening, namely the Spanish film Return to Hansala.
The film critic Yusuf Sherif Rizkallah, the festival's art director, told IslamOnline.net that among the films chosen for display, he noticed a group of films on the lives of Muslims in the West, depicting through the behavior of their heroes and heroines the tolerance of Islam and decided to group them in a section with that title.
"I thought it was useful to focus on such films, highlight the main viewpoint in each of them, and push them toward a greater percentage of viewing in order to face the intentional defamation of Islam and Muslims by the western cinema and media with a few exceptions," adds Rizkallah.
The opening film tells the story of a Moroccan woman who loses her brother in an attempt of illegal immigration from Morocco to Spain. She was obliged to take his corpse back to their homeland.
The film is directed by Chus Gutierrez who directed many short and documentary films including A Home for Rent, Alma Gitana, Anxiety, Warmth, and lastly Return to Hansala in 2008.
The American film Mozlym is about an African-American young man who tries to improve his situation and get out of the neighborhood where he lives. He joins college and pursues a master’s degree in film direction, but is haunted by his past memories of gangster life, and fears that his brother will follow the same route.
Influenced by the image propagated about them in the media and by his younger brother’s adventures with Afghan gangs, he decides to make his graduation project about Muslims and violence.
The film director, Edreace Purmul, was born in the U.S of an Afghan origin. His parents had left for the U.S as refugees during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the late seventies. He obtained his bachelor’s degree in business administration and film direction from San Diego University in 2006. He currently lives in California.
The English film Shoot on Sight delves into the heart of English society and centers around Tareq Ali, the Muslim police officer of the intelligence department of Scotland Yard, who is asked to arrest the terrorists who carried out the July 7 bombings.
Things become convoluted, however, when Tariq is shot by the English police. In spite of being a British Citizen and his long service in British intelligence, he is under his boss's suspicion.
The film is directed by Jag Mundhra, born in India in 1948. Jag carried out a comparative study between the marketing methods of American and Indian cinema. His works include The Final Call, Sand Storm, Private Moments and Natasha (2006).
The incidents of the Algerian-French film Adhan, take place in an ancient industrial park where a Muslim called 'Mao' owns a specialized company for fixing cars and hoisting gears. Mao decides to build a mosque and hires an imam without getting permission from the labor department.
The film is for a French director of Algerian origin Rabah Ameur Zaimeche who was born in Algeria in 1966 and moved to France in 1968. In 1999 he established Sarrazink Productions and directed his first film Wesh Wesh in 2002.
Wesh Wesh, or What’s Going on?, won the Wolfgang Staudte at the Berlin International Film Festival for 2002 and the Louis Delluc prize in France for 2005.
Zaimeche also wrote, produced and directed Bled Number One that won the youth prize in 2006 at the Cannes International Film Festival. Adhan is his latest work.
A Film on Prophet Muhammad
A number of Arab American cinema producers are preparing a one million Euro budget film entitled The Messenger of Peace about the biography of Muhammad – peace be upon him – as a launching point for the story of persons who lived around the Prophet, and were affected by his message, and witnessed the dawn of Islam.
Oscar Zoghby, the main producer of the film, said that it was about time to show the true values of Islam. He added that the film would tackle the life of common persons and families who live in the same place at the time of the rise of Islam.
The film, he says, is not addressed to Muslims only but is an international film addressed to the whole world; a "Hollywood film with Islamic values" in his own words.