No, that’s not a typo in the title, folks, and yes, you’re right, there is no such thing. There almost was, though, a week-long film festival scheduled for the city of Jeddah. Sort of reminds one of organizing an Amish Technology Expo or a Goldman Sachs seminar on fiscal responsibility, but there is almost was. Writers, directors and movie fans and were all there, ready to participate in the week long Saudi Film Festival, the first ever scheduled in Saudi Arabia. It was supposed to start last Saturday but was cancelled at 11 PM Friday night by the municipal government of Jeddah, supposedly because the event was not sufficiently prepared. Which was news to the festival’s organizers, who pretty much had it covered.

Planning a film festival is not exactly rocket science. You get a bunch of movies and play them for the audiences. The work has already been done by the actors, directors, producers, screenwriters and film crews, who deliver a finished product and then all you have to do is find a theater to screen it and the audience does the rest, which consists of sitting in a chair for two hours and watching. Not exactly brain-busting activities on the part of the organizers or the patrons of the event. Ah, but this is Saudi Arabia we’re taking about and there are no movie theaters, what with them being against the law and all. It seems that religious radicals, who for some odd reason call themselves religious conservatives (!), pretty much run the show over there when it comes to all things cultural and behavioral. and the cinema is a big no-no.

As (bad) luck would have it for Saudi would-be film enthusiasts, movies are one of the things publicly banned in Saudi Arabia as being a corrupting Western influence on their people, perhaps right up there in their pantheon of evils with women leaving the house. The sponsor of the event, a wealthy member of the Saudi royal family named Prince Waleed bin Talal, is a noted normal guy who is not threatened by people watching dopey Harry Potter movies and having women behind the wheels of cars or their own lives. Which of course gets him branded as a dangerous liberal in Saudi Arabia, an enemy of Islam and so forth. His own brother, another wealthy prince and an extremist, has even called for bin Talal’s assets to be frozen so he can’t keep living his scandalously regular life.

The last thing the sexual deviants that run that country want is for their women to be let out of their cages to interfere with their love affairs with teenaged boys. That might be embarrassing, what with the Koran forbidding homosexuality and all, as if any book can do away with people’s natural proclivities. Might as well forbid being tall for all the good it will do you. Well, this Waleed bin Talal runs around with beautiful women who, not being covered in potato sacks, one can’t help but notice are beautiful women. Which is, after all, pretty normal, regular stuff. That normalcy alone drives the powerful extremists nuts. And now this Waleed guy wanted  to run an international film festival?

Don’t international films show normal people living normal lives? You know, the kind where the women are not under house arrest and nobody persecutes anybody else because they are different. The films might spoof or criticize other people, but even that is a celebration of their accepted existence. And don’t international films reflect a world where a king and a 5,000 member royal family don’t get to hog all the trillions of dollars in national income and run everybody’s private lives? And run them in the most backward and strange ways imaginable? And of course these stringent laws do not apply to the royal family, most of whose behavior would entitle them to a pubic stoning, whipping or beheading if they were commoners. No, a film festival just won’t do in the Land of Big Mullah. And Big Mullah is always watching.

The ironic thing is, though, is that movies are very popular in Saudi Arabia, although people are limited to watching them at home on DVD. It seems Big Mullah can’t invade the sanctity of Saudi citizens’ homes yet, at least as long as they are not suspected of heinous crimes like practicing a religion other than Islam or allowing a woman to leave home unescorted. So, the upshot was that the festival was cancelled the night before it was to have commenced, and the Saudi people have one more reminder that they live under a heavy yoke.

For now most of them seem to make the usual convoluted mental accommodations with the situation; it’s not so bad, the government means well, it’s God’s will and all the usual claptrap, but you can’t help but wonder how long this will go on. To live in a wealthy nation and not have the benefits of living in a wealthy nation is just as good a recipe for revolution as grinding poverty. And starving or not, the heel of the boot (or perhaps the sandal?) is just as annoying. While having the rug pulled out from beneath something as frivolous as a film festival may seem a small thing, that is the region of the world that coined the phrase “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” How funny would it be if the impetus for a Saudi revolution was Harry Potter? Or better yet, another comedy disaster by Jim Carey or Adam Sandler! That would give Big Mullah something to think about, and provide the rest of the world a lot more amusement than a dozen film festivals.

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