By Souhail Karam
But sharp criticism from religious police shows efforts to relax strict laws face opposition.
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 Alwaleed could not have gone ahead without the blessing of royals with key decision-making roles.
"We have obtained permission from the Information Ministry and from the governorate of Mecca to show the movie in Jeddah and Taif," Badi said. The province of Mecca is governed by Prince Khaled al-Faisal, a pro-reform son of 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 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.
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.
The religious police have wide powers to search for alcohol, drugs and prostitution, ensure shops are closed during prayer and maintain a strict system of sexual segregation in Saudi society, where women are even banned from driving.
"Menahi" stars new comedy sensation Fayez al-Maliki as a naive Bedouin entangled in a get-rich-quickly scheme in Dubai, the region's tourism and trade hub where lifestyle is far less restricted.
Saudi Arabia had some movie theatres in the 1970s but the conservative clerical establishment managed to snuff out the industry. Saudi film buffs had to travel to neighbours like Bahrain to see movies in cinemas but a new generation of young Saudis has begun making films in recent years. (Reuters)
Sweeping indictments of the cinematic arts are unacceptable. There are many wonderful documentaries and films, which bring empowering messages to society. These films reveal the best in the cinematic arts. Films such as "Menahi" bring laughter and joy to the society while offering a moral message on the troubles created by get-rich-schemes. Docudramas make great films to entertain and educate people on the history of the worldâ€¦ good, bad, and indifferent. Mass media and the film industry have the potential to help create a better world. It is not ALL evil. "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" When we make things forbidden due to the power of a few closed-minded people then society becomes a state of "propaganda", "mind control", and â€œGroup thinkâ€ without offering any redeeming intellectual discourse about positive proactive change which allows Islam to grow and breathe in a modern global community. The freedom of mass media is very powerful. We should not abuse this freedom or use sweeping indictments to condemn this artistic medium. T Crowe Semler
There is no need to establish film theatres or screens at cultural centres, especially promoting mixed gender viewings. The people have all the freedom to watch it at home, if they want. There is no moral in promoting this industry for the sake of making money. Commerce is behind all this, no other purpose.