Saudi TV actors released from prison

Stars were arrested for mixing with women in public

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- A group of TV actors in Saudi Arabia have been released from prison following their arrests for mixing with members of the opposite sex.

The actors, stars of the Saudi TV series "Ayyamu Al Surab" (The Mirage Days), were filming in a hotel lobby in the capital city of Riyadh when they came to the attention of the religious police, who prohibit the mixing of men and women in public.

After their arrest on March 30, the actors were released without charge after signing an agreement not to film in a mixed-gender group in public again. Saudi Arabia has strict laws governing the mixing of unrelated men and women.

The actors, who included Omani star Ebrahim Al Zidjali as well as Saudi actors Ali Saad and Fawaz Al Jaser and actress Sahar, are well-known in the region.

"Although it's not that common, it happens and the religious police do it to show they have power," said one Saudi media and political consultant who wished to remain anonymous. "Many TV series are filmed across Saudi Arabia, and sometimes the police will make a raid to show their upper hand. But in this case, the TV series had the correct permission to film, so it was against the rules for the police to intervene."

Saudi's religious police, the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, consists of officers who follow a shifting set of moral and quasi-legal laws. They have divided a society that is part forward-thinking and progressive, and part rooted in a strict, literal interpretation of Islamic law.

"The backlash online has been massive. It's negative to Saudi and Saudi cinema," the consultant said, adding that actors and filmmakers in Saudi struggle to be creative under draconian laws. "(The arrests) will only be counterproductive."

There has been vocal debate in the kingdom in recent years, with reformers pushing for change. King Abdullah replaced the country's religious police leader with a more progressive leader, but incidents like this may be perceived as a setback to a country that has recently begun to open itself up to tourists from the West.

Turki al Rwaita, a film editor and cameraman working for Saudi-based Talashi film group, said the arrests will not have a long-lasting effect on local media law as arrests like these are commonplace and filmmakers learn to work around them.

"Three weeks ago, I was shooting with a female director in the street and the police came up to us and were asking if she is my sister or wife, because it is not allowed to be with a woman you (aren't directly related to). Then they let us go. You have to be careful."

There are still no cinemas in Saudi Arabia. DVDs and television are the only outlets, and people gather in private homes for film screenings.

Saudi moral law is guarded with ferocious piety by the CPVPV, who will harangue women in the street for exposing even a centimeter of ankle flesh.

Saudi Arabia has recently made headlines for its first, tentative forays into promoting the kingdom as a tourist destination, and while visas are still difficult to come by for single women, female citizens are increasingly being given prominent roles in media. Haifa Mansour, one of the country's first emerging filmmakers, has screened her films in Dubai and around the Middle East, although mixed-gender filmmaking, especially for novices, remains a touchy subject.

Anggi Makki, a fledgling filmmaker studying at King Abdullah University, says that many filmmakers like him are forced to write scripts that not only consider budgetary constraints, but social ones as well.

"I wrote my film Badri (currently entered into Dubai's Gulf Film Festival, which takes place April 9-15) on a low budget, you can't write in explosions and stunts, of course. But in Saudi, writers also have to think about other boundaries. I wrote, directed and produced the film inside -- the scenes with women are all shot inside, in my basement. I guess it is quite hard for filmmakers."

Said Faisal Al Otaibi, a filmmaker with Saudi Arabia-based Media Insight Production: "I've never had any problems with the religious police. But I make documentary films and don't have female actors."
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