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Now opening: Saudi culture

Film screening was conservative capital's first in three decades.

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia - For the first time in three decades, Saudis in the nation's capital went to the movies.

It wasn't exactly date night. No women were allowed.

Saturday's screening of the Saudi film Menahi brought a taste of the moviegoing experience to Riyadh more than 30 years after the government began shutting down theaters. That move was driven by religious conservatives who feared cultural activities such as movie screenings could lead to mixing of the sexes.

Men and children, including girls as old as 10, were allowed to attend Saturday's show at a government-run cultural center.

They largely ignored a group of conservative men outside the center who tried to discourage moviegoers.

"It was just beautiful to see people look so animated and happy," said Misfir al-Sibai, a 21-year-old Saudi businessman who attended the screening. "That was the best part of the evening."

Despite the exclusion of half of Riyadh's population, the decision to show the film, produced by a company owned by Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, was daring. It was part of an effort to open up the kingdom, culturally and in other ways, that began when King Abdullah came to power in 2005.

Angry conservatives have issued edicts against such cultural events. One of them, Youssef al-Ahmed, has even accused Alwaleed and another Saudi businessman of being as dangerous as drug dealers because the TV channels they own carry movies.

Inside the center, the atmosphere was lively as moviegoers bought popcorn and posed for pictures with the film's cast.

Two men tried to disrupt the evening. One stood up after evening prayers at the mosque attached to the center and urged worshipers not to take the few steps to the theater, Sibai said.

Just after the film began, the viewers could hear another man shout that they should refrain from spending their money on such decadent pursuits, Sibai said. Security led the man away.

The disturbances did not dampen the audience's mood, Sibai said, and the film - a comedy about a Bedouin who has a difficult time adapting to life in cosmopolitan Dubai - was shown to a nearly full house.

Saudi movie directors and aficionados have tried to revive cinema in Saudi Arabia in the last few years, encouraged by the more open environment in the kingdom.

There has been an upsurge in Saudi-produced movies, some of which have taken part in international film festivals. The kingdom held its first Saudi film festival last year in the city of Dammam. The information minister's attendance was a clear sign of official approval.

Alwaleed - a nephew of King Abdullah's and, according to Forbes, the world's 13th-richest person - has been outspoken about the need for movie theaters in Saudi Arabia.

For now, Saudis can watch movies on television. Some hold screenings in their living rooms or travel to nearby Bahrain to catch the latest releases. Also, numerous video stores stock the latest films after kisses and other such scenes have been cut. Saudi newspapers even have a weekly movie page.

Menahi was shown to a mixed audience in the more open western seaport city of Jiddah and the resort of Taif a few months ago. According to a statement by Rotana, which produced Menahi, 25,000 people saw the movie, including 9,000 women.

Ibrahim Badi, Rotana's spokesman, said the company could not get permission for women to attend in more conservative Riyadh.