“The problem is with some of the religious movements and extremists. They say it’s haram [sinful] because of the content of the films and people being there communally. But we say it’s not haram because cinema is not mentioned in the Koran or the Hadith [the sayings and acts of Mohammed],” the director added.
The group said they decided to set up a secret cinema after the authorities cracked down on Saudi filmmakers who posted work on YouTube which, according to al-Arabiya, receives as many as 90 million page views from the kingdom every day.
Feras Bugnah, a video blogger, was arrested and detained for two weeks last year after posting a film about poverty in Riyadh on the site, which attracted more than 800,000 views.
“On YouTube they always watch you and restrict the page,” another Red Wax founder said. “Secret cinema is Banksy style — no one knows who he is.”
The filmmakers denied their activities were un-Islamic. Their aim, they said, was both to stimulate grassroots film production and a critical audience.
“The films should be made by people here [to give] more freedom of expression to our community. It’s [about] our daily life, our struggle against all these banning forces, not to be free to say what we want. We need to reach average people so we can raise the level of awareness. It’s not provocative, it’s more real. If I make a film, I need an audience. It’s not interesting if a film is not showing inside [the kingdom] because not all Saudis can travel abroad,” one of them said.
The next film to be screened explores women’s rights and was shot with a camera hidden in a black abaya robe. Another looks at the belief in black magic.
The director said: “It’s restricted in Islam to go to a wizard, but it’s really common because a lot of people believe it is more than medicine. One of my friend’s brothers was in hospital with a liver infection and people told him to buy a black rooster and pour its blood on his body.”
Haifaa al-Mansour, whose first feature film, Wadjda, was shown in this year’s London film festival, said the secret cinema showed there was a desire in the country for young people to come together and tell their stories and raise issues through film. When she shot her film in the kingdom, despite opposition from conservatives, “a lot of people wanted to be extras.”
However, she added: “It might be more difficult and take more time, but it’s important to work within the system to see real change.”
Mansour said the lack of a public audience made it difficult to produce films in the kingdom.
“The funding is very difficult because a lot of people don’t know what to do with a film from Saudi Arabia. How politically will it be placed? Where’s it going to show? So they’d rather give money to filmmakers in Lebanon and Egypt. It’s very frustrating,” Mansour said.
Mona Deeley, a producer for Cinema Badila: Alternative Cinema on BBC Arabic TV, said: “The secret cinema is an interesting initiative for both subverting the ban on cinema and as a form of civil and cultural resistance.”
Egyptian writer and curator Omar Kholeif, director of the UK’s Arab Film Festival, also gave a cautious welcome to the secret cinema: “I would personally question what real impact a ‘secret’ cinema event could have — after all, it is secret. In spirit, and in ethos, I think it is to be applauded, but what I would really like to see is how this group could intervene publicly — to mount a true act of subversion.”