Event will kick off on May 20

Saudi Arabia is creating the conservative kingdom’s first official film fest, despite the fact that cinemas have been banned there for three decades.

Five-day fest, as yet untitled, is being organized by the government-sponsored Dammam Literary Club along with the Saudi Society of Arts and Culture.

Event will unspool May 20 and include screenings of shorts and docs from around the Gulf. A prize dubbed “The Palm” will be awarded to best short and doc.

The Dammam Literary Club has been hosting private screenings for segregated audiences of men and women in recent months in a sign that the ban’s restrictions are being gently eased.

In October 2005, the first public screenings of any kind in more than 20 years took place when cartoons unspooled in a hotel in Riyadh to a specially invited audience of women and children to celebrate the end of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan.

In July 2006, the privately financed Jeddah Visual Festival — which avoided the term “film” in any of its publicity — was held in front of a specially invited audience. Jeddah organizers held a sophomore edition last year.

With an estimated population of 27.5 million, oil-rich Saudi Arabia could potentially become the biggest single market for Arab distribs, although bigscreen fare will be heavily censored and restricted to family-friendly pix.

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