A female Saudi film-maker won an award for best drama at the Saudi Film Festival, the chief juror said Wednesday, hailing a higher quality of entries despite the kingdom's cinema ban.
The five-day festival was only the second in seven years, and aired films at an arts and cultural centre in the Gulf coast city of Dammam.
At the awards ceremony on Tuesday night, Hana al-Omair took the Golden Palm Tree prize for her drama “Complain”, said Abdullah al-Eyaf, the head of the festival jury.
It tells the story of a hospital worker who lodges a complaint against a colleague, an act symbolising everything wrong in her life.
Another woman, Shahad Ameen, won second prize in the drama category for “Eye & Mermaid”, a fantasy about a girl who discovers her father has tortured a mermaid to extract beautiful black pearls.
Mohanna Abdullah took third place for his film “Adam’s Ant”, the story of a prisoner who tries to befriend an ant in his cell.
The kingdom practises an austere version of Islam that does not permit conventional entertainment venues such as film theatres.
It is the only country where women are not allowed to drive. The sexes are strictly segregated, prompting critics on Twitter to complain after photographs showed men and women freely mixing at the film festival.
Organisers said they hoped the gala would open eyes in Saudi Arabia to the possibilities of film despite objections from some conservatives that cinema would “Westernise” the kingdom or corrupt its morals.
In 2013 the film “Wadjda”, by Saudi female film-maker Haifaa Al-Mansour, became the country’s first to be listed as a candidate for a foreign-language Oscar, although it did not make the final shortlist.
At this year’s Saudi festival, the Golden Palm Tree for best documentary went to Faisal al-Otaibi for “Grand Marriage”. It recounts a two-week wedding ceremony taking place in the archipelago nation of the Comoros.
In the student category, Mohammed al-Faraj also earned one of the golden stylised palm tree trophies for “Lost,” a documentary about stateless people living in Saudi Arabia.
Abbas al-Hayek took top prize for best unproduced script.
Eyaf and his jury selected the winning productions from among more than 60 entrants.
Eyaf, himself a prize-winning film-maker, said Saudi Arabia has emerged a winner “for having all this talent”.
Without cinemas or film schools, there is no formal film industry in the country of about 29 million people.
But Eyaf said having a festival is “one of the most important things” in trying to develop a film culture.
“There is an improvement, very obvious improvement, since the last edition in 2008,” Eyaf told AFP, citing the entrants’ better technique, story-telling and scripts.
While only five or six films at the first festival were considered “good”, there were at least 15 or 20 this time, and entries came from across the kingdom, Eyaf said.
Crowds queued to attend the screenings, which drew about 1,500 people every day, he added.
“It was a huge success,” and there are plans to make the festival an annual event, Eyaf said.