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Saudi pic causes stir

Producer sets slate despite cinema ban

LONDON — Filming has just wrapped on Saudi Arabia’s first full-length feature film, placing “Keif Al-Hal” (How Are You) in post-production in Dubai’s Studio City, where the film also lensed.

Film is slated to open everywhere around the Middle East this summer. Everywhere, that is, apart from Saudi Arabia itself. Cinemas have been banned in the kingdom ever since the early 1980s. Not that it’s stopping the film’s producer, Prince Al-Waleed Bin Talal’s Rotana, from moving ahead with plans to develop film production in the country.

“It’s a big issue. We hope there will be cinemas in the future, but for the time being they’re banned. We believe there are other means of reaching audiences in Saudi Arabia, such as cable TV and DVD, which we’re happy to explore if cinema is not an option,” says Ayman Halawani, Rotana’s general manager of film production, who confirmed the pic’s budget was in the low millions.

Besides the Mideast, Halawani plans to open the film in Paris, London and Cannes, traditionally popular vacation spots for summering Saudis.

Given the restrictions on filmmaking, producers were forced to shoot in neighboring Dubai, which is increasingly becoming a regional production center with the advent of Dubai Studio City.

The pic, set in the conservative kingdom, details the struggle between moderates and religious extremists in one family, and by extension the country as a whole.

Pic’s helmer is Palestinian-Canadian Izidore Musallam, and stars Saudi heartthrob Hisham Abdel-Rahman, winner of satcaster LBCi’s 2005 pan-Arab version of the “Star Academy” talent show. Also starring is Saudi Arabia’s first female thesp, Hind Mohammed.

Both have had run-ins with authorities. After he was mobbed by fans in a local mall last year, Abdel-Rahman was briefly detained for causing an “indecent scene” by the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue & the Prevention of Vice, Saudi Arabia’s religious police. Mohammed, meanwhile, has received threats over her choice to appear before cameras unveiled.

“It hasn’t been easy. There are conservative people against the film, especially because it features a Saudi actress. Some of our cast have received severe warnings. The film is causing a big buzz here,” Halawani says.

The pic is a further sign of slow progress in Saudi Arabia. Last November saw the first public screenings in the country for more than 20 years when an audience limited to women and children was allowed to watch a series of cartoons to celebrate the Muslim feast of Eid-al-Fitr.

Given Saudi Arabia’s less-than-stellar record on women’s rights, it’s surprising that the country’s first film of any kind was actually delivered by a woman, Haifa Mansour (2003’s “Women Without a Veil”), who serves as both co-writer and associate producer on “Keif al-Hal.”

“She knew how to treat the sensitive cultural Saudi issues,” Halawani says of Mansour’s input.

Halawani is seeking even more input from Mansour as she preps her own debut feature. In fact, Rotana has two more Saudi features planned by the end of the year, a comedy and a thriller.

Originally set up by Al-Waleed as a record label and Arab music satcaster in the 1990s, Rotana has since mushroomed into one of the Arab world’s biggest media empires.

The company now has two further movie channels, which fill their skeds from an archive of 2,000 Arab films Al-Waleed has acquired, as well as a film division that produced 20 films last year, mostly with Egyptian co-producers — a figure that represents nearly half the total pics produced in the Arab world in 2005.

Rotana’s film division also has plans to start rolling on two projects in Lebanon and Tunisia by the summer.

“We want to expand film production in the entire Middle East,” Halawani says.