Daikha Dridi interviews Abdallah Eyyaf, filmmaker, founder of an itinerant ciné-club in Saudi Arabia.
Abdallah el-Eyyaf, a mere thirty-years old, is a mechanical engineer at Aramco. He is also a filmmaker and soldiering on for the establishment of a ciné-club in Riyadhh. He, along with some forty fellow passionate cinephiles, succeeded in presenting publicly and officially their ciné-club hereto with dwelling in the underground. The ‘outing’ lasted a mere handful weeks. He bitterly recalls the experience, but miraculously, it has not deterred his optimism. If stories of ciné-clubs belong to the recent history in the Arab world, in Saudi Arabia, they belong to the future, affirms Eyyaf with assurance.
In 2005 you directed a film about the lack of movie theaters in Saudi Arabia, can you tell us a little about that?
It was my first film, titled Cinema 500 Kilometers, a documentary I directed in 2005. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where there are no movie theaters. They are prohibited until this day. In the film, I follow a young Saudi cinephile, an afficionado who has never set foot in a movie theater, on his first trip outside the kingdom to the closest theater to him, located in Bahrain, at a 500 kilometer distance. Those who do not live, or have never lived in Saudi Arabia, cannot imagine what it means to live in a country that does not have movie theaters. It is strange.
Was your documentary ever screened in Saudi Arabia?
The film was screened in many festivals, in the United Arab Emirates, Cairo, Amsterdam, France, Beirut, in the US… After it toured so many places in the world, I despaired over screening it in Saudi Arabia, thinking it would never happen. However, thank God, because of the perseverance of journalists and film critics, it screened in small literary clubs and a very small festival.
You are an engineer during the day, a filmmaker in your free hours, and you are struggling to establish a ciné-club in Riyadh, have you succeeded?
A group of us friends tried to establish a ciné-club in Riyadh, sadly we have yet to succeed. A Saudi filmmaker tried before we did, also in vein. The novelty this year is the semi-official acknowledgement of the existence of Saudi films as a number of filmmakers who produced their own films were able to screen them in several countries, they even earned awards at a number of international festivals. As a result, the local authorities began to develop an interest in our idea of ciné-club. At first, we were told our initiative would be endorsed by the Association for Arts and Culture, that has been operational for a decade and only invested in theater and popular arts. Unfortunately, they were practically of no help whatsoever, all they did was screen a few of our films for a short period of time but shortly thereafter stopped all activity.
Was it the first time your ciné-club was granted a “legality” and garnered a public audience?
Yes, because that association is an arm of the Ministry of Culture. They screened only a handful films and in very limited scope, in effect these screenings were the means by which they sent the message to the media that there were “taking charge” of Saudi cinema, using us temporarily as the show-piece, that’s all. They never coordinated with us. We were never able to organize a significant activty besides the twenty-some films screened during ten evenings over a period of a couple of weeks, and the adventure of the ciné-clubs was done with!
Under what conditions did the screenings take place?
They screened our films at their Association’s space for an audience of almost 50, the association’s audience only. When we tried to pursue the screenings further, nothing came out. The question of cinema is very sensitive in Saudi Arabia, filmmakers and cinephiles are regarded with suspicion and apprehension. For instance, when the Association in question screened the films, they did not allow women to attend, even if the sessions were especially intended for women. They are too scared of the agitation films might stir.
So the Riyadh ciné-club experience is aborted? Finished?
No, until this day there is no official proclamation to affirm it is over. The screenings stopped taking place, no one is talking to us to and nothing gets done. However, there are other associations, with no official affiliation, that have extended us more efficient support, namely literary clubs. These have granted real support, they screen our own Saudi-made films, but also Arab (Egyptian, Algerian, Tunisian), American, Japanese and Russian films, screenings are advertised in the media and reviewed by critics. Debates follow screenings. The literary clubs have programmed all kinds of films from all over the world, covering historical periods and schools, whereas the association, officially vested with taking us under its wing, refused to show films other than Saudi.
What is about ciné-clubs, in your opinion, that caused them to be so apprehensive?
They refuse to deal with the question seriously, they regard ciné-clubs as a potential source of conflict with those who reject cinema in the country. After our films were screened in several countries outside the kingdom, we decided to struggle to have them screened at home. We knocked on every door, and that’s how the literary clubs decided to show our work.
Although the vocation of literary clubs is to promote literature, not cinema, they have granted a deal of importance to films and on a sustained basis. The club of the Sherqiya region has become, for instance, one of the best places to watch films. What they are doing is great, they program films from all over the world which has caused them a lot of problems, attacks by some religious organizations, but also objections to the films they screen, voiced sometimes from members of their audience.
Is organizing film screenings a new experience for literary clubs in Saudi Arabia?
They have been doing it for over a year now, but it’s not quite full-fledgedly official, including the public advertisement of screenings, where, for instance, they don’t use the word “ciné-club”, or mention the title of the film. They say: “Tonight the activity will be the presentation of a cultural film.” That way, they ward off those who oppose cinema.
But when and how did the idea of establishing a ciné-club in Riyadh come about? And with whom?
We are all young, high-school students, university students and professionals, we formed an independent group (we are not official) that meets regularly to watch films and discuss them. We also meet on a website. As I am speaking to you, I am in my car, crossing some 150 kms to meet friends for one of our screening sessions. We are almost forty-five people, the majority has met on the internet. We watch films in our private homes. This has been going on for seven years now, I think we have been meeting to watch films since the year 2000.
How do you select the films you screen?
There are no limitations or boundaries that circumscribe our choices, we watch everything. I have seen some hundred films myself, watched thousands of DVDs, of filmmakers including Kurosawa, Bergman, Fellini, Scorcese, Moroccan, Egyptian, everything, we watch absolutely everything.
And the discussions?
They never end, sometimes I felt that between the quantity of films we were watching and the intensity of our discussions, there was more passion for cinema exhuding in our gatherings than anywhere else in the Arab world where cinema is not prohibited. I traveled many times to Beirut, only for the purpose of buying important non-commercial films, like for example, Werner Herzog’s most recent release. I am not saying that it is not possible to buy films on DVDs in Saudi Arabia, but generally only commercial films are available there.
It must be strange to build a ciné-club without a public…
The feeling is divided, on the one hand, I am delighted to have forged friendships with people in the ciné-club, extraordinary people I met on the internet. On the other hand, I am embittered, angry and sad that we cannot host other cinephiles and filmmakers outside the confines of our private homes. When we have foreign guests, we cannot imagine taking them anywhere except our homes. It infuriates me that we cannot screen their films directly to a public. I am convinced things will change very soon, Saudi society, wether individuals or official bodies, are changing. Cinema is visibly making its way to Saudi Arabia. It will take another two years, I am sure of it.
Where would a memory of cinema strike root in a country that has no movie theaters or cinema?
Saudis follow cinema enthusiastically, however it would be more appropriate to speak of a present, rather than a memory of cinema. I am hedging my bets on the future and the young generations who will change many things. At a moment when ciné-clubs in Arab countries have disappeared or died, Saudis have begun to develop a passionate interest for cinema. In spite of limits and constraints, Saudis are very cultured, and this is one of the reasons cinema is important, because to many of these young folks, who like us want to establish ciné-clubs, cinema is firstly a means for an unhindered expression. One has to see how animated the post-screening discussions are in the literary clubs, or how dynamic the pages in Saudi newspapers! In spite of the absence of movie theaters, these are really quite popular pages, which is not necessarily the case in other Arab newspapers. All this fills me with a lot of optimism.
Photo: From the Arab Film Posters Collection of the Near East Collection of Yale University Library.