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Saudi Arabia nixes Jeddah festival

Move is blow for burgeoning film industry

Saudi Arabia’s burgeoning film industry has been dealt a blow with the last-minute cancellation of the fourth Jeddah Film Festival.

The fest, which launched in 2006, was due to open with Yemeni helmer Faisal Al-Tafi’s “The Losing Bet” — the first of 71 features — on Saturday. Instead, organizers received notification from authorities in Jeddah on Friday night that the event would not be going ahead.

The government of Saudi Arabia refused to comment.

It appears, however, the move was evidence of a victory for hardliners in the conservative kingdom who have become increasingly worried about the gradual relaxing of cinema laws in the country.

Cinemas were banned by clerics in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s. Since then there have been attempts to lift the clampdown.

In October 2005, the first public screenings in more than 20 years took place when cartoons unspooled in a hotel in Riyadh, the capital city, 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 fest — which at the time avoided the term “film” in any of its publicity — was held in front of a specially invited audience.

This year’s edition boasted some of its highest-profile sponsors ever, with Saudi media mavens Prince Waleed bin Talal’s Rotana Films and Sheik Waleed al-Ibrahim’s MBC Group publicly supporting the fest.

Both Waleeds have found themselves the targets of venomous attacks by members of Saudi Arabia’s hardline establishment.

Prince Waleed’s own brother, Khaled, publicly denounced him in June for spreading vice in Saudi Arabia through his attempts to have cinemas reopened there.

In December last year, Prince Waleed opened “Menahi,” a Saudi pic financed and produced by Rotana, in the cities of Jeddah and Dammam, allowing mixed members of the public to buy tickets for the first time in three decades.

However, when the prince opened the pic in Riyadh in February, hardline authorities condemned members of the public attempting to buy tickets.

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