On the coast of the Persian Gulf, less than a hundred meters from the shoreline, stands the Sultan Bin Abdulaziz Science & Technology Center. Located in Al-Khobar, a city in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, the complex houses, among other things, a 190-seat IMAX Dome that plays two shows daily: one of Wild Africa, and one of Galapagos: Nature’s Wonderland. The forty-minute documentary screenings are spaced out so as not to overlap with daily prayer. It is the only movie theater in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a country with a population of over 32 million. In a couple of months’ time, however, this notoriety will be a thing of the past.
A little under a month ago, on December 11, the kingdom lifted its ban on movie theaters — one that was originally instated in the early Eighties. Dr. Awwad bin Saleh Al-Awwad, chair of Saudi Arabia’s General Commission for Audiovisual Media, announced at the time that the process for cinema licensing would begin within a period not exceeding ninety days. By March of 2018, then, Saudi Arabia will have its first commercial screen in decades, soon to be inaugurated with the local release of the U.K. production Born a King, a period biopic about teenage Saudi prince Faisal. By 2030, the Ministry of Culture and Information estimates, the country will have over 300 cinemas with over 2,000 screens.
While the ministry has stated that “the contents of shows will be subject to censorship according to media policy standards of the kingdom,” the impending seismic shift has still been seen as cause for celebration within Saudi’s artistic community — albeit with some reservations surrounding the potential effect of commercialization on experimental moviemaking. “Cinema is considered one of the remedies for something a lot of people in Saudi are suffering from: boredom,” says the Saudi screenwriter Yassin Kamel, who co-scripted the 2015 animated film Bilal: A New Breed of Hero, starring Ian McShane and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. Kamel believes the lifting of the ban could be both “a breather” and “a beautiful escape” for Saudi film fans, while also leading to more money being poured into local productions. “Saudi Arabia has a unique religious place in the world, and political weight in the region,” says Kamel. “It’s one of the richest countries, so there’s a huge responsibility on Saudi filmmakers to make a difference.”
The first cinemas were brought to Saudi Arabia in the Thirties by Western workers at the California Arabian Standard Oil Company (now Saudi Aramco). In the ensuing decades, they spread from foreign residential complexes to major cities. However, following the 1979 attempt by fundamentalist insurgents to seize the Grand Mosque, King Khalid responded by granting more power to religious conservatives and implementing stricter interpretations of Islamic law. Before long, there was a crackdown on images of women in news media, and on cinema as a whole.
Saudi cinema culture has always found ways to survive the suppression of theaters, whether through makeshift halls that held on for a few years into the ban to show Egyptian, Indian, and Turkish films, or via television, home media, and online streaming in the decades that followed. The digital revolution of the mid-Aughts further exposed fans and filmmakers to the possibilities of cinema, affording widespread access to streaming and digital cameras. According to the director Mohamed Alsalman, who has studied at the Colorado School of Mines and the King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals, “Saudis thrive on entertainment. They’re some of the biggest film fans in the Arab world.”
That’s something to which this writer can attest. I was a child of an expat family posted in Riyadh in the early Nineties, and my first memories are of two things: calls to prayer over minaret loudspeakers, and Western staples like Batman, Superman, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Personally, I blame my becoming an entertainment writer on my father, who once brought home a black-market VHS copy of the original Star Wars after work. Legal or not, American media was never hard to find in Saudi Arabia, and there has always been a market for it. Per Khalid Fahad, the writer-director of the YouTube miniseries Haneen, Saudi viewing habits haven’t been all that dissimilar from that of the Western world over the last few decades. American hits like Full House and Friends gained popularity in Saudi Arabia in the Nineties, followed by Prison Break and Breaking Bad in the mid- to late Aughts. As one might expect, the current craze happens to be Game of Thrones, but Saudi’s visual output hasn’t yet been able to compare to its expensive influences.
A lack of resources is no match for conviction, though — as seen in the arc of the Saudi Film Festival. The historic cultural event was born in the city of Dammam in 2008, though it wouldn’t make a return until 2015. It has since become an annual gathering; its fourth installment was celebrated in the neighboring city of Dhahran this past March, where a total of 59 Saudi films (of short or medium length) were screened. Since the festival’s re-emergence and its addition of a student category, local film circles have increasingly absorbed shorts and indies as part of their entertainment diet.
Some experimental directors, however, are cautious about the reopening of theaters. “The majority are happy, congratulating each other,” prefaces Maha Alsa, whose short Fear: Audibly played at Fantastic Fest in Austin last year. (She also teaches media in the Eastern Province.) “As for me and a couple of experimental indie filmmakers, we are a bit wary about what these changes will mean to us and our films. If it means we will have to undergo a more expensive process, such as getting permissions we didn’t have to previously pay for, it’s going to be about making money to support the industry. I think it may mean more struggle to get people to join us for a low- or no-budget film.”
Grants are already difficult to acquire for experimental artists; Alsa also notes the tightening of film-festival rules in cities like Riyadh and Jeddah over the last few years, which now demand “goal-oriented” reflections of local values as opposed to previous years’ looser, less specific guidelines surrounding religious offense. “The original film festival in Dammam simply stated that films should not contain scenes inappropriate for the Saudi culture and religion,” Alsa adds. “This left the door open for more films which were not necessarily sending a moralistic, role-model message about society’s values. It was left open for films that aimed to reflect life as it is.” As Saudi films gain more widespread visibility, the guidelines are likely to tighten in accordance with appeasing conservatives, making it harder to create thought-provoking, boundary-pushing work. Alsa points out that noteworthy Saudi Film Festival entries like Abdulrahman Jerash’s social satire Mazban (Hideout), about relatives who would rather die in a fire than reveal to one another that they smoke weed and cross-dress, would likely not exist under these conditions.
The push-pull between art and commerce is of understandable concern. The lifting of the theater ban may lead to more artistic regulations, but it would also create thousands of new jobs in coming years, with Middle Eastern titan Vox Cinemas poised to enter the market and America’s AMC Entertainment Holdings not far behind. There’s sure to be capitalization by both local and foreign investors to meet the inevitable demand for studio infrastructure, though it’s still unknown what form Saudi’s future movie industry might take, or if its cinemas will be segregated by gender, like many of Saudi Arabia’s public spaces still are.
The kingdom’s limited cinematic output has rarely had to adhere to commercial mandate at a local level. The BAFTA-nominated Wadjda (2012), the first film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and the first feature directed by a Saudi woman, was released in Kuwait, one of several neighboring countries Saudi residents can travel to if they want to catch a movie in theaters. The project took five years to fund despite an investment from Prince Alwaleed bin Talal’s production company, Rotana, owing to the minuscule market in Saudi Arabia at the time. That slow-moving paradigm is sure to shift, allowing Saudi filmmakers more access to domestic resources, but one has to wonder if entirely Saudi-funded films for a local market would be granted anything approaching the same artistic leeway.
Still, there are those like the filmmaker and critic Abdulmohsen Almutairi who see the decision’s big-picture effects as a net positive. In the wake of Netflix entering the Saudi market in 2016, the overturning of the ban presents an opportunity to shift the current cinema culture from a personal experience to a collective one. “I think it’s a good step to push the kingdom toward a more progressive, moderate lifestyle,” states Almutairi. “It’s a big step for society itself, who will have the opportunity to watch more films, to watch other cultures, to identify and recognize others, and to have open-minded perspectives.”
The move echoes other recent boons in the Saudi arts scene, including the returning prominence of music concerts, a result of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud’s “Saudi Vision 2030” plan to diversify the nation’s economy and reduce its reliance on oil. In January of last year, 8,000 male attendees in Jeddah saw internationally renowned Saudi vocalist Mohammed Abdu (a/k/a “the Artist of Arabs”) become the first performer at a large-scale Saudi venue in seven years. A few weeks after that, the country even welcomed its first Comic Con in Jeddah, a desegregated event featuring recently popular Western staples like the Lip Sync Battle and Hannibal star Mads Mikkelsen. The changes didn’t end there: In September, the Saudi government also reversed its globally maligned stance against women drivers, though the new policy won’t be implemented until this June.
The government under the anti-corruption Crown Prince bin Salman, though undoubtedly effective, has a penchant for claiming full credit for these progressive steps. (Its statement “allowing” women to drive, while widely celebrated, was also criticized for ignoring the decades of activism that led to the mandate.) But, given the existing culture it serves, there is little that can undo the eagerness and excitement surrounding the monumental decision to open up the movie houses. “We have maybe two or three generations who grew up in the country without cinemas,” says the director and Saudi film fund recipient Abduljalil Al-Nasser, “yet we have filmmakers, screenwriters, film producers, and people who have participated in film festivals around the world.”
The return of movie theaters opens up previously unavailable opportunities, but Saudi’s thriving underground filmmaking scene makes it less an introduction of new cultural concepts and more akin to tapping into existing potential. While often touted as a monocultural benchmark for Wahhabist extremism in ways that account for neither citizen opposition nor diversity of thought, Saudi Arabia and its glacial movement toward a more moderate climate like that of the neighboring United Arab Emirates finally affords its artists the possibility of changing the view of Saudi culture from the outside, as well as a long-overdue shot at molding what Saudi Arabia itself can be.
As the Saudi screenwriter Yassin Kamel puts it, “We wasted a lot of time because of extremists, so now we need to make up for it. We need other countries and nations around the world to say, ‘We wish Saudi Arabia had cinema a couple of decades ago.’ ”