Saudi Arabia expected to lift ban on cinemas

Saudis attending a screening of short films at the King Fahd Cultural Centre in Riyadh.
Saudis attending a screening of short films at the King Fahd Cultural Centre in Riyadh.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

RIYADH •The lights went out, a projector whirled and entertainment-starved Saudis sank into plush seats to soak up an experience denied them for decades - a trip to the cinema. The rare movie night in the capital, Riyadh, was a precursor to an expected lifting of the kingdom's ban on cinemas, long vilified as vulgar and sinful by religious hardliners.

Following a decree allowing women to drive, the authorities have hinted cinemas would soon be permitted as part of reforms for a post-oil era that could shake up the austere kingdom's cultural scene.

"Cinema is like the soul of Saudi society," said Mr Faisal Alharbi, director of National Dialogue, one of three short films screened at the King Fahd Cultural Centre. "It makes people see reality, a reflection of their own lives on screen."

The hall was segregated by gender at the free screening - the latest in a series since July.

Once the ban on cinemas ends, medical student Sultan, 19, expects cinemas with all the trappings of the modern movie experience, including vending machines offering popcorn.

Reviving cinemas would represent a paradigm shift in the kingdom, which is promoting entertainment as part of a sweeping reform plan dubbed Vision 2030.

Hardliners, who see cinemas as a threat to cultural and religious identity, were instrumental in shutting them down in the 1980s.

Saudi Arabia's highest-ranking cleric warned in January of the "depravity" of cinemas. But the authorities appear to be shrugging off the threat, with some comparing Saudi Arabia's reform drive to a fast-moving bus - either people get on board or risk being left behind

In recent months, the country has organised concerts, a Comic-Con pop culture festival and a mixed-gender national day celebration.

A ban on cinemas does not make sense in the age of YouTube, filmmakers said. Saudi movies have made waves abroad, using the Internet to circumvent distribution channels and state censors.

Wadjda, by female director Haifaa al-Mansour, made history in 2013 after it became Saudi Arabia's first Academy Award entry. The film depicts the dream of a 10-year-old girl to get a bicycle just like the boys in her conservative neighbourhood.

This year, the country is again vying for an Oscar, with Barakah Meets Barakah, the kingdom's first romantic comedy which premiered at Berlin International Film Festival.

The government is yet to officially announce a date for ending the ban, but already, the hashtag "cinemas opening in Riyadh" is gaining traction on social media.

The expected reform stems partly from a bid to boost domestic spending on entertainment as the kingdom reels from an oil slump.

Saudis splurge billions of dollars annually to watch movies and go to amusement parks in neighbouring Bahrain and Dubai.

Without cinemas, investment in films is unlikely to flourish and the depiction of society will not move beyond the foreign portrayal of Saudis as extremist or culturally primitive, film-makers said.

At the King Fahd Cultural Centre, a rapt audience watched National Dialogue. The film addresses the social dilemma of young Saudis struggling to find the right match.

As the lights came on, the raucous crowd of men erupted into cheers.

They were, in turn, vigorously booed by the female audience.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 24, 2017, with the headline 'Saudi Arabia expected to lift ban on cinemas'. Subscribe