A moral dilemma for Saudi biz

Producers struggle to balance strict cultural laws and making films, TV

A group of TV actors in Saudi Arabia has been released from prison after their arrests for mixing with members of the opposite sex.

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

After their arrests March 30, the actors were released without charge after signing an agreement not to film in a mixed- gender group in public.

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," a Saudi media and political consultant said. "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 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 one, but incidents like this might be perceived as a setback to a country that recently has begun to open up to Western tourists.

Turki al Rwaita, a film editor and cameraman working for the Saudi-based Talashi film group, said the arrests won't have a long-lasting effect on local media law because such incidents 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)," he said. "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 recently made headlines for its first, tentative forays into promoting the kingdom as a tourist destination, and though visas remain 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, though mixed-gender filmmaking, especially for novices, remains a touchy subject.

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

"I wrote my film 'Badri' (entered into Dubai's Gulf Film Festival, which begins today) on a low budget; you can't write in explosions and stunts, of course," he said. "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." (partialdiff)