Riyadh: Young Saudis, thirsty for cinema in a country with no big screens and just the bare bones of a movie industry, are determined to drag the kingdom into the celluloid world.
Seven Saudi movies will take part in a film festival in the United Arab Emirates' capital Abu Dhabi in March, the strongest showing yet for the Saudi cinema at any festival.
And entertainment firm Rotana owned by royal entrepreneur Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal has said it is producing the first full-length Saudi film, to hit Gulf cinemas this year.
"We'd like to do films that our society likes, that helps the rise of cinema, and also get recognition. I'd like our voice to reach the West," said Abdullah Eyaf, a 28-year-old director who runs a popular web site promoting film culture.
His 45-minute documentary Cinema 500 km tackles the issue head-on, depicting a Saudi youth who must travel to neighbouring Bahrain to sate his appetite for the cinematic experience.
"The film asks the question 'why is there no cinema here?' It's a spark to get people to talk about the subject," Eyaf said.
"In Bahrain, cinema owners say that during holidays 80 to 90 per cent of their customers are Saudis. All the video stores in Riyadh have large memberships. The Saudi people want cinema."
The authorities in Riyadh allowed public screenings of children's cartoons in November, the first time films have been shown in public since the 1970s when the kingdom's powerful religious establishment took a position against cinema. Now with a native population of around 18 million, 60 per cent of whom are under 21, interest in Saudi Arabia could be huge, directors say.
"We are trying to create some movement in the stagnant waters and to find some form of legitimacy and acceptance for this industry," said Mohammad Bazaid, 26, who has a silent film entry in the Emirates Film Competition, which starts on March 1. He said Saudi Arabia, where Custodian of The Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz supports cautious reforms, could follow the lead of Iran.
Saudi woman director Haifaa Al Mansour has led the way, winning international acclaim for documentaries in 2003 and 2004. Her latest film, 2005's Nisaa Bila Dhill (Women With No Shadow), will also be screened in Abu Dhabi.
Haifaa and many other young directors are based in the Eastern Province, near more open Gulf Arab societies like Bahrain, the UAE and Kuwait.
"We have opposition to women driving and entering other fields. They [clerics] oppose new concepts coming to society and cinema is one. But it will phase out with time," she said.