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Last Updated: Friday, 26 May 2006, 14:20 GMT 15:20 UK
'First' Saudi feature film aims high
By Vincent Dowd
BBC World Service Arts correspondent, Cannes

A film launched at the Cannes Film Festival this week is, say its producers, the first Saudi Arabian feature-film - although it was actually filmed in Dubai.

Keif al-Hal (How are you?) stars the 25-year-old Saudi actress Hind Muhammad and its producers say they hope it will be instrumental in opening up Saudi Arabia to film culture.

Hisham Abdulrahman, star of Keif al-Hal
Hisham Abdulrahman, winner of the pan-Arab Star Academy, stars
Even for Cannes, Ayman Halawani is a movie man with an unusually big ambition - to bring film to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

At the moment public cinemas and theatres are banned in Saudi Arabia.

Mr Halawani is the general manager of film production for the Rotana group, and Saudi Arabia, he says, is a massive untapped market.

"The Gulf as a whole has maybe a tenth of the population of the Middle East - but it accounts for about four-fifths of the advertising spend.

"So it's hugely rich - but for cultural reasons Saudi Arabia finds film very problematic. We think we can change that, over a period of a time," Mr Halawani says.

Campaign for change

Not only are there no public cinemas in the kingdom, but there is only a small film-making industry, concentrating on short films and documentaries.

So although Keif al-Hal is set in Saudi Arabia it was actually made in Dubai which has the film infrastructure which the Saudis lack.

Hind Muhammad was brave in taking on the role of Dunya - other actresses in Riyadh would have hesitated. She's shown that a Saudi film actress can both be attractive and dignified
Ayman Halawani
Partly it is a simple matter of studio space but even more importantly there is no body of skilled technicians to call on.

Rotana wants to change all that - and this film is only the start of a campaign to do so.

Mr Halawani says there need be no intrinsic religious or cultural objection to films in Saudi Arabia, although he acknowledges that care needs to be taken in choosing themes.

Family struggle

He describes Keif al-Hal as a social drama with comedy.

"It's about a young woman's struggle with her family which is more conservative than she is. It's a pretty normal situation, which lots of cultures can sympathise with. She encounters more extreme elements and more liberal elements, exactly as you'd expect," he says.

Theatre actor Meshaal al-Mutairi, in Keif al-Hal
Meshaal al-Mutairi grows a beard in the film and pretends to be religious

The lack of Saudi cinemas means that when it is released after the Cannes publicity machine the film will be seen only in other Middle Eastern nations and on DVD.

But Rotana has deep pockets and is in this for the long term.

Mr Halawani believes there is a big hunger among Saudi Arabians to see their lives depicted on screen.

Setting up a whole culture of movie production, distribution and exhibition from scratch is a tall order - indeed perhaps it's never been attempted before - but Rotana and its owner Prince Walid bin Talal are thinking ahead.

Role of women

Mr Halawani says the film is potentially significant too in charting the developing role of women in Saudi Arabia.

"Hind was brave in taking on the role of Dunya - other actresses in Riyadh would have hesitated. She's shown that a Saudi film actress can both be attractive and dignified," he says.

Until now Hind Muhammad has mainly been known for her radio work.

"We think she will be the first Saudi superstar," Mr Halawani says.

The motives behind Keif al-Hal are unusually complex.

There is certainly a desire to squeeze more profits out of the wealthy middle classes of Saudi Arabia.

There is a long-term desire to get more film into the kingdom and a belief that Saudi society may finally be ready to accept cinema-going as a social activity.

And those behind the film also clearly hope it will help loosen some of the social restrictions in this highly conservative nation.

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