Lights, Camera, Modest Action: Saudi Arabia Lets People See Movies Again

For the first time since 1980, Saudis will be allowed to watch films; censored, of course. But it’s not clear if women will be permitted to sit next to their husbands

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Saudi women stand in front of a John Travolta poster at a convention center in Riyadh, December 15, 2017.
Saudi women stand in front of a John Travolta poster at a convention center in Riyadh, December 15, 2017.Credit: Faisal al Nasser / Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Anybody may open a cinema anywhere in Saudi Arabia, says the announcement by the House of Saud, as long as they adhere to the kingdom’s rules on the media and morals. The exact restrictions are anybody’s guess, but they’re probably the same as the restrictions on television dramas.

Such shows may not depict “bedroom situations” such as kisses or anything smacking of sexuality. Language must not deviate from the kingdom’s norms, and productions are supervised by censors, who are on the set to ensure that the director and actors don’t stray.

The first movie likely to be openly shown in Saudi Arabia after three and a half decades is expected to be “Born a King,” a Spanish-Saudi production by the Spanish director Agusti Villaronga. The movie tells the story of Saudi King Faisal, who in 1919, at age 14, was sent to represent his father on a visit to England, at the invitation of King George V. Period footage shows the prince with a sword in hand, accompanied by members of the royal family, as representatives of the host kingdom hover about.

Saudi Arabia and cinema aren’t a natural couple. The handful of films produced in the kingdom over the last decade or so include “Wadjda” (2012) by director Haifaa al-Mansour and “Keif al-Hal?” (2006) by Izidore Musallam. That was produced by Rotana Group, which belongs to Prince Alwaleed bin Talal — among the Saudi nobles recently arrested for alleged corruption by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

There have also been some documentaries. But the kingdom isn’t about to join the list of cinematic superpowers. Saudi Arabia banned movies in 1980, a year after religious fanatics broke into the Great Mosque of Mecca. King Khalid banned movies so as not to give the fanatics a chance to undermine the royal house’s religious legitimacy.

In practice, movies have still been shown, mostly in Jeddah, but also in the capital Riyadh, at youth clubs or in private homes.

Saudi Arabia’s cinemas were closed in the ‘60s, but movies were still shown in specific places like small halls or office buildings of the oil company Aramco. Sometimes only employees of Western companies were allowed to watch. American soldiers stationed in Saudi Arabia certainly had such permission; the movies would arrive each week from the United States. The U.S. Air Force even promised to collect the reels that reached the bases, ensure that no copies were missing, and return them to the United States.

After the royal proclamation lifting the ban on movies, nostalgia articles began to appear in the Saudi press; for instance, describing the movies that arrived from Egypt or India in the ‘30s. In the ‘60s, some cinemas like the Dar al-Jumum in Jeddah would rent out equipment to people who would show films in neighborhood courtyards, armed with makeshift dividers. The segregated viewers would sit on the ground.

A few weeks ago, when Crown Prince Mohammed published his plan to build a futuristic city called Neom, spokespeople discussed ideas to develop the movie industry, mainly for its economic potential. Dubai and Egypt have built media cities that bring in a great deal of money. Dubai has even surpassed Egypt as a movie capital thanks to its superb terms for producers, a major annual film festival (compared to Egypt’s pitiful festivals) and its ability to attract global celebrities.

A scene from the 2012 Saudi film 'Wadjda.' Credit: 'Wadjda'

Does Saudi Arabia intend to compete with Dubai? Optimists would say that few people ever thought Dubai could supplant Egypt as the center of the Arab movie world. But Saudi Arabia is no emirate and Riyadh is no Dubai; neither is the more permissive Jeddah. Saudis have to go to Bahrain to watch newly released films that are freely shown in Dubai.

Also, in Dubai, women can drive to the mall and watch movies as they please, while the Saudis haven’t even finished writing their new rules governing female drivers. Even when Saudi women get to take the wheel, they may not be allowed to watch movies with their husbands. They may be segregated into women’s sections.

Still, the crown prince deserves credit for the sheer daring in letting cinemas reopen in the kingdom.

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