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Young Saudis striving to overcome cinema ban

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RIYADH, Feb 23 (Reuters) Young Saudis, thirsty for cinema in a country with no big screens and just the bare bones of a movie industry, are determined to drag the ultra-conservative Muslim kingdom into the celluloid world.

Seven Saudi movies will take part in a film festival in the United Arab Emirates' capital Abu Dhabi in March, the strongest showing yet for the nascent Saudi cinema at any festival.

And entertainment firm Rotana -- owned by royal entrepreneur Prince Alwaleed bin Talal -- has said it is producing the first full-length Saudi film, to hit Gulf cinemas this year.

''We'd like to do films that our society likes, that help the rise of cinema, and also get recognition. I'd like our voice to reach the West,'' said Abdullah Eyaf, a 28-year-old director who runs a popular Web site promoting film culture.

His 45-minute documentary ''Cinema 500 km'' tackles the issue head-on, depicting a Saudi youth who must travel to neighbouring Bahrain to sate his appetite for the cinematic experience.

''The film asks the question 'why is there no cinema here?' It's a spark to get people to talk about the subject,'' Eyaf said.

''In Bahrain, cinema owners say that during holidays 80 to 90 percent of their customers are Saudis. All the video stores in Riyadh have large memberships. The Saudi people want cinema.'' The authorities in Riyadh allowed public screenings of children's cartoons in November, the first time films have been shown in public since the 1970s when the kingdom's powerful religious establishment took a position against cinema.

Puritanical scholars believe any depiction of the human form is forbidden in Islam and see the US-dominated film industry as an immoral force dominated by sex and violence.

Observers also say there was a commercial disincentive in the 1970s to running cinema theatres. Now with a native population of around 18 million, 60 percent of whom are under 21, interest in Saudi Arabia could be huge, directors say.

''We are trying to create some movement in the stagnant waters and to find some form of legitimacy and acceptance for this industry,'' said Mohammad Bazaid, 26, who has a silent film entry in the Emirates Film Competition, which starts on March 1.

He said Saudi Arabia, where King Abdullah supports cautious reforms, could follow the lead of Iran, a conservative Islamic country with a globally respected cinema.

PIONEERING WOMAN DIRECTOR Saudi woman director Haifaa al-Mansour has led the way, winning international acclaim for documentaries in 2003 and 2004. Her latest film, 2005's ''Nisaa Bila Dhill'' (Women With No Shadow), will also be screened in Abu Dhabi.

Mansour and many other young directors are based in the Eastern Province, near more open Gulf Arab societies like Bahrain, the UAE and Kuwait.

''We have opposition to women driving and entering other fields. They (clerics) oppose new concepts coming to society, and cinema is one. But it will phase out with time,'' she said.

Even the logistics of putting a film together are difficult in Saudi Arabia, which follows the conservative Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam. Rigid rules of public morality require women to be accompanied by a male relative in public and impose gender segregation in most public spaces.

Mansour said she often shoots early in the day in quiet areas to avoid attracting the attention of religious police who patrol the streets. ''I was a little bit concerned, but no one noticed,'' she said.

Saudi directors were encouraged last month when Salman al-Odeh, a leading Wahhabi cleric, said on Saudi entertainment channel MBC that cinema deserved support because it could promote Islam.

Moderate Islamists have in the past used similar arguments to win acceptance for modern inventions such as television which once faced strong opposition from religious hardliners.

''Cinema is a huge industry in the West which often targets Islam, so setting up a cinema industry will do justice to Islam.

This is a good demand and a good thing,'' Saudi papers quoted Odeh as saying.

Islamist lawyer Mohsen Awajy said inherent contradictions in the informal ban on cinema would eventually lead to the collapse of religious opposition.

Cinema may be off limits but young Saudis can flick from Islamic stations to state television to entertainment channels featuring chat show queen Oprah Winfrey and US sitcoms.

''If cinema is prohibited, what about the very (morally) bad channels received from abroad? Or those owned and financed by Saudis, such as MBC or the channels of Prince Alwaleed?'' Awajy said. ''Films shown in public are more conservative than the private television channels that broadcast into private rooms.'' REUTERS CS SP1206

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