Saudis open screen door

'Mecca' preemed at the Jeddah Hilton in Saudi Arabia

On Sunday night, some would say the impossible happened. A feature film, financed and produced by both Saudi and international interests, premiered in a public place in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia with full approval of the authorities.

Director Bruce Neibaur’s Imax movie “Journey to Mecca” had its local premiere at the Jeddah Hilton on the opening evening of the Jeddah Economic Forum, held for the first time under the patronage of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud.

It’s only the second time a film has been shown in public in Jeddah since the city’s five cinemas were closed under Saudi law in 1982.

“Journey to Mecca” follows 14th century explorer Ibn Battuta as he makes his way from his native Morocco to Makkah (Mecca) for the Hajj pilgrimage.

The film, released in 2009, has already unspooled in New York, Washington D.C., London, Paris, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi and Shanghai, but the Jeddah preem seems the most significant, occurring in a region where public screenings are banned.

Dignitaries from inside the kingdom and abroad attended the event, which was inaugurated by one of the film’s key financiers, Abdulrahman Al-Zamil, chairman of Saudi Arabia’s industrial conglom the Zamil Group.

“Premiering the film in Jeddah is of great importance to the film’s developers and producers, as it shows there is a market for such magnificent films,” said Al-Zamil in an interview with Variety Arabia. “From the reaction we have seen tonight, we can see that the audience believes that such films help to spread peace and prosperity.”

The audience consisted of male and female guests, separated by a screen, who watched the film in the hotel’s main ballroom. Prominent figures such as Sheikh Saleh Kamel, chairman of the Saudi Chambers of Commerce and Industry, and Dr. Lama Al-Sulaiman, vice chairwoman of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce, helped organize and support the event.

Filmed in Makkah Province with the permission of HRH Khalid al-Faisal, governor of Makkah, “Journey to Mecca” was exec produced by Jake Eberts, whose credits as exec producer include “Dances With Wolves” and Peter Weir’s “The Way Back.”

Project was conceived as an Imax film by producers Taran Davies and Dominic Cunningham-Reid and financed by producers from eight countries, including the Al-Zamil family in Saudi Arabia.

The film was presented by the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, an institution led by HRH Prince Turki al-Faisal, former Saudi Ambassador to the U.K. and U.S. It was filmed at the Grand Mosque, using three Imax cameras.

The last movie shown in Jeddah was helmer Ayman Makram’s comedy “Menahi,” produced by Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, in 2008. It played for a week at a 1,200-seat conference hall, where men sat on the ground floor with women separate in the balcony.

Given its subject “Journey” seems an appropriate selection in a country known for the strict control of content, a policy of which the film’s backers were well aware.

Although the general ban on films remains, Saudi Arabians are exposed to movies extensively since the country is full of satellite dishes; people watch them all the time in the privacy of their own homes.

But the public screening represents a huge step that could be significant for film fans in Saudi Arabia.

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