By Jan Lundius
STOCKHOLM, Sweden, May 8 2023 (IPS)
The World changes, though prejudices and misconceptions remain. In 1996, political scientist Samuel Huntington published The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, in which he predicted that people’s cultural and religious identities would become the primary source of conflict in a Post–Cold War World. Huntington’s allegations have been contradicted by a number of critics, among them American Palestinian professor Edward Said, who lamented their extreme cultural determinism, which omitted the dynamic interdependency and interaction of cultures. Said’s own Orientalism depicted a generalised “Western view” of Arab cultures as “static and undeveloped”, while European culture was considered to be “developed, rational, flexible, and superior.” Literature and movies have depicted Arabs as exotic men riding camels and horses through the desert, and their women as dangerously seductive objects of male desire. Eventually, the exotic men turned in to being terrorists, and/or depraved oil-rich magnates, while Muslim women were presented as veiled, enigmatic, and oppressed.
Are there no counter-images to such a one-sided view, for example an Arab film industry? Since the inception of a film industry in Europe and the US it has generally been assumed that local movie production arrived in the Middle East much later than in “the West”. As a matter of fact, already by the beginning of the 20th century both screening and production had been brought into most Arab countries. Eventually, Egyptian film production came to dominate Middle Eastern movie industry, while it established affiliated companies in Lebanon. Iraq, Jordan, Iran, Israel, and more recently the United Arab Emirates and Palestine, followed suit.
Films serve as visual entertainment for huge audiences and in a vivid manner reflect social attitudes. They thus constitute a great medium for inspiring societal change. Of course, films might serve as a means for propaganda and indoctrination, but this does not hinder them from proving helpful in making people inclined to change a status quo. There are now signs that a pervasive socio/economic change is taking place in Saudi Arabia, where a growing film industry has become part of what appears to be an overhaul of hitherto domineering ideologies
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the only nation in the world named after a dynasty. It was founded in 1932 by King Abdul-Aziz bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud, though the strength of The House of Saud can be traced back to 1745, when a local leader established a politico-religious alliance with the Wahhabis, a religious affinity honouring a Salafiyya interpretation of Islam, i.e. what is believed to be the faith of the “pious predecessors of the first three generations.” The House of Saud offered obedience to the Wahhabis, while promising to propagate their faith during a fierce struggle against Turkish and foreign influences.
Initially, Saudi Arabia did not refute the idea of movie theatres and allowed improvised cinemas, but all films were heavily censored and supposed to be screened privately. In 1982, Fahd bin Abdulaziz Al Saud became the fifth king of Saudi Arabia. Actively trying to base his authority on Wahhabism, he increased Government support to the conservative religious establishment; spending millions of dollars on religious education, strengthening separation of the sexes and the power of Muatawwa’ūn, a religious branch of the police.
Between 1983 and 2018 the only movie theatre to be found in the country was at a Science and Technology Centre, which only screened “educational” films. If Saudis wished to watch films it had to be via satellite, or DVD. In the meantime, Saudi Arabia grew into the largest economy in the Middle East. Its citizens benefit from free education and health care, along with subsidized food, electricity and housing. However, the economy relies overwhelmingly on oil. The country exports almost nothing else and imports almost everything. A welfare state has been built on the expectation that oil revenues would remain at historic levels, though prices are falling and oil will eventually run out. Furthermore, seventy per cent of the population is under thirty years of age and many demand increased personal freedom.
When King Fahd died in 2005 he was succeeded by King Abdullah Al Saud. Contrary to his predecessor, the new king realised that Saudi youth had to be better educated. As soon as he came to power, Abdullah implemented a scholarship program sending young Saudi men and women abroad for undergraduate and postgraduate studies. More than 70,000 Saudis began studying abroad in more than 25 countries, with the US, Great Britain, and Australia as main destinations. Educated and emancipated women also became considered as an asset for development. The King established a governmental department to promote women’s higher education and in 2011 women were allowed to vote in municipal council elections. The year after, women athletes competed in the Olympics and in 2013 domestic violence became a criminal offence.
However, still no movie production and screening were allowed in the country. The trend towards increased openness, innovation, efforts to limit religious bigotry and enlarged women’s rights continue under the current king, Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud. Its most visible propagator is Mohammed bin Salman, colloquially called MbS. He is Crown Prince, i.e. Salman bin Abdul-Aziz’s heir, though MbS is already the country’s Prime Minister and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia.
Already during King Abdullah’s reign, semi-clandestine initiatives were made by a budding movie industry. Wadja became the first feature-length film made by a female Saudi director. In 2012 it was entirely shot within the Kingdom. Written and directed by US-educated Saudi citizen Haifaa al-Mansour it told the story of a spirited 10-year old living in Riyadh. On her way to school she passed a shop window with a green bike. However, its price was high and girls riding bikes were frowned upon.
Wadja deals with feelings of school girls, though it mirrors a society where grown women are regimented as if they were still in school. Behind closed doors the beauty and wit of Wadjda’s mother were unmasked, though she seemed to be barely aware of it. Her main concern was that her husband intended to take a much younger woman as second wife. Wadjda set about to earn cash to buy the bicycle. Her target was a school prize, awarded to the student expressing most devotion in learning and reciting passages from the Quran. Wadjda feigned orthodox goodness and her efforts at memorization impressed her teacher. She won the competition, though staff and students became shocked when Wadjda announced her intention to use the prize to buy a bicycle. The headmistress was furious and against Wadjda’s will donated the prize money to charity.
Despite an apparent sentimental depiction of a little schoolgirl’s desires, Wadjda emphasized her longing for freedom and self-realization, as well as fear of emotional abandonment when her father took a second wife. It is not only a film about a young person’s awkward relationship with an authoritative society and distressed parents – her longing for a bicycle of her own actually became emblematic of an entire people’s striving for freedom.
Wadjda was shot in a country where zealous clergy forbade cinemas and with a totalitarian regime with zero-tolerance of female film directors. al-Mansour had most of the time to work from the back of a van, as she could not publicly mix with men of her crew. She generally had to communicate via walkie-talkie and watch the actors on a monitor.
Haifaa al-Mansour spent seven years on finding adequate funding. It was the Saudi Arabian billionaire businessman Al Waleed bin Talal Al Saud who finally agreed to contribute. Al Waleed is a grandson of Abdul-Aziz, the first king of Saudi Arabia, and among other altruistic initiatives he financed the training of the first Saudi female commercial airline pilot, declaring that he was disposed to give “full support of Saudi ladies working in all fields.”
In November 2017, Al Waleed and other prominent Saudis were arrested during an “anti-corruption drive”. Some 200 detainees were brought to the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh and subjected to coercion and abuse. Some, among them Al Waleed, were released after paying heavy fines. MbS not only attacked the old, extremely wealthy oligarchy, but also religious leaders who uphold Wahhabi doctrines. He openly declared that there are no static schools of thought, nor any infallible persons. In another statement MbS acknowledged that the Saudi state had not been “normal” for the past 30 years and that it was his intention to introduce social, religious, economic, political changes and a new educational policy, asserting a “Saudi national identity” within what he called a post-Wahhabi era.
Without interrupting or limiting his totalitarian powers MbS prohibited the Muatawwa’ūn to “stop, follow, arrest, punish, and ask people for their ID.” Muatawwa’ūn had until recently 4,000 officers, assisted by thousands of volunteers, and an additional 10,000 administrative personnel. It imposed strict segregation between the sexes, controlled that women wore the hijab, and forbade the sale of dogs and cats, as well as toys like Barbie dolls and Pokémon items.
Most of these restrictions are now abandoned. Women are allowed to drive cars and can chose not to wear the hijab. Women above 21 years can obtain passports and travel abroad without permission from their male guardians. It has become legally possible for women to independently open their own businesses and bank accounts, while mothers are authorised to retain immediate custody of their children after divorce. Women have now access to operas, concerts, cinemas and sports events.
This is part of the Government’s Saudi Vision 2030, aiming at diversifying the nation’s economy through heavy investments in non-oil sectors, including “green” technology, tourism, local expenditure and entertainment. In Riyadh, construction has begun of The Mukaab, a gigantic structure, which will include an armada of hotels, shopping malls, several cinemas and an “immersive” theatre. In the Northwest, Neom I is under construction – a high-technology megalopolis, with robotic services and even an artificial moon. The Line, a zero-carbon city stretching 170 kilometres across the desert. Qiddiya, a gigantic amusement park just outside of Riyadh. Trojena, a luxury ski resort in the Tabouk Mountains. The Red Sea Project, which is intended to be a string of luxurious hotels along the Red Sea shores.
Saudi Arabia has now 60 high-tech cinemas with approximately 500 screens in operation, as well as an increasing local production of TV entertainment. In accordance with Vision 2030 a General Entertainment Authority has been established. Its current chairman is bin Salman’s old friend Turki Al-Sheikh, known for his lyrics, sung by several Arab artists.
The film The Cello is expected to premiere in Riyadh this year. It is based on a novel by Turki Al-Sheikh that takes place in several locations, foremost in the 18th Century Italian town of Cremona, but also in present time. After being filmed in Prague, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Vienna, the movie stars world famous actor Jeremy Irons, as well as a great number of movie celebrities from Europe, Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In The Cello a young man purchases a cursed cello, built by a Cremonese master luthier, builder of string instruments, who butchered and cut up his entire family, using parts of their blood and bones to make a cello.
The cutting up of people in Turki Al-Sheikh’s The Cello might remind viewers of the murder and dismemberment of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, allegedly carried out by Saudi officials in Turkey. However The Cello may have an intended, or unintentional, so called Boris Bus effect. i.e. changing the subject of the gruesome murder of a journalist into the making of a wondrous instrument. Boris Johnson managed to redirect Google searches from past embarrassing and deceitful bus ads about Brexit into a description of his hobby of making toy buses with painted, happy passengers on board.
Bin Salman’s occasionally brutal and draconic measures might be interpreted as residues from hundreds of years of despotism. They will hopefully mellow, or even disappear, if Arabian society is allowed to continue on its already beaten path towards an open and democratic society, allowing for women’s emancipation, free speech and general wellbeing. A trend already evident within the Saudi Arabian film industry, which does not shy away from controversial subjects and where almost forty per cent of crew and directors currently are women.
IPS UN Bureau