The Saudi film industry took another step forward last week with the public screening of a locally produced movie, suggesting the government
could be moving towards lifting a three-decade old ban on cinemas.
The premiere of Mnahi , which was produced by Saudi-owned Rotana studios, marks the second public screening of a Saudi film in a little more than a year, after Sabah al Lail was opened to the public on a commercial release in October 2007
during the Eid al Fitir holiday.
Rotana Studios is owned by Prince Waleed bin Talal, a Saudi billionaire, and it is believed his connections with the royal family played a major role in the movie's public showing.
I am correcting a big mistake, that is all, Prince al Waleed had told the New York Times in a 2006 interview prior to the launch of Rotana Studios' first movie, Keif al Hal : I want to tell Arab youth you deserve to be entertained, you
have the right to watch movies, you have the right to listen to music. There is nothing in Islam – and I've researched this thoroughly – not one iota that says you can't have movies. So what I am doing right now is causing change.
Movie theatres existed in Saudi in the 1960s and 1970s, but they were banned in the early 1980s after conservatives consolidated their support.
Ayman Halawani, General Manager of Rotana Studios, said in a press statement that Saudi cinema will not only produce but it will market its movies in its home country and among its viewers, and here lay the significance of this event.
A locally-produced comedy, Menahi , premiered in two cultural centres in Jeddah and Taif this month before mixed-gender audiences, a taboo in Saudi Arabia whose strict Islamic rules ban unrelated men and women from mixing.
Turnout for the movie, produced by billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal's media company Rotana, was so big the film had to be played eight times a day over a 10-day period.
While the kingdom's Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Shaikh has not commented on the issue, the head of Saudi Arabia's religious police condemned cinemas as a pernicious influence.
Our position on this is clear - ban it. That is because cinema is evil and we do not need it. We have enough evil already, said Ibrahim al-Ghaith, the head of the religious police, whose official title is the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and
Prevention of Vice. He later toned down his remarks, saying that cinema could be tolerated if it does not violate Islamic law.
Cinema and theatre are against Sharia because they distract people from work and weaken their efforts in achieving progress, said Saudi
Arabia's Grand Mufti Shaikh Abdul Aziz Alu Al Sheikh during a conference on leisure, visual arts and literature.
Theatrical performance, whether it is a cinema or a song, would generally make an impression that is against Sharia. People need only those (art forms) that are useful to them to change their way of life (in an Islamic manner), he decreed.
The mufti's pronouncements are however a sign that Saudi society is increasingly split between a ruling establishment made up of very conservative clerics who espoused strict adherence to Islamic precepts and a broader group of more liberal-oriented
young Saudis who want greater openness, more freedom for women and a greater range of entertainment.
Like young people across the Middle East young Saudis routinely go online which gives them access to US action movies, but they cannot go to the movies, an issue that is still taboo.
Yet the recent screening of a Saudi comedy, Menahi , in two movie theatres twice a day for eight days—with women dutifully seated in the balcony, and men in the stalls—was cheered by many Saudis.
We put sound and visual equipment, we sold tickets for the first time in Saudi Arabia, and we even sold popcorn, said Ayman Halawani, general manager of Rotana Studios, the production arm of a company owned by Waleed bin Talal, a financier and
member of the royal family, who has become the target of ultra-conservatives for his liberal ideas and investments in the TV and show business. Overall some 25,000 people actually saw the film.
Hundreds of muslims in Saudi Arabia have signed a petition demanding a stop to what they say is a trend of films being shown in public.
There have been no cinemas in Saudi Arabia since the 1970s. And there are unlikely to be any soon.
The petition has been motivated in particular by the showing of a home-grown Saudi film in Jeddah last year. It was financed by the Rotana network, which dominates Arab entertainment and is owned by the billionaire Saudi Prince Waleed bin Talal.
But even a one off event as the showing of the first Saudi feature film at two venues has aroused the suspicions of Islamic conservatives. They claim cinemas fill people's minds with evil and pollute the purity of their souls.
Saudi Arabia's only film festival has been cancelled, dealing a blow to reformist hopes of an easing of clerical control over culture that was raised by the low-key return of cinemas in December.
In a country where cinemas were banned for almost three decades, the Jeddah Film Festival has since 2006 presented aspiring Saudi film-makers and actors with a rare opportunity to mingle with more experienced peers from other countries. On the eve of the
festival, Mamdouh Salem, one of the festival's organisers, received a call. He said: The governorate of Jeddah notified us of the festival's cancellation after it received instructions from official parties. We were not told why.
The film festival was cancelled upon indirect instructions from the interior ministry, said an official at the information and culture ministry.
Abdullah al-Alami, a Saudi writer, said there is a trend of attacking cultural festivities. This is a dark day for art and literature in our modern history.
King Abdullah has tried cautious reforms in the kingdom, a US ally which has no elected parliament, but diplomats say he is facing resistance from conservatives opposing changes.
Many Saudi religious conservatives believe films from more liberal Arab countries such as Egypt could violate religious taboos. Some also view cinema and acting as a form of dissembling inconsistent with Islam.
Cinemas are set to open in Saudi Arabia in March 2018 for the first time since they were banned in in the early 1980s, according to the
Saudi minister of culture.
Cinemas existed in Saudi Arabia until they were banned in the early 1980s after a puritanical religious establishment gained control over social and educational affairs in the country. Today, the organized Islamist undercurrents that thrived in
the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s no longer have quite so much influence in the country.
A multimillion-dollar DVD bootleg industry flourished as a result of the cinema ban. Saudis amassed large collections of pirated DVDs of the latest Hollywood blockbusters, circumventing both the ban and censorship. It's this revenue that the
decision today also aims to recapture.
Opening cinemas will act as a catalyst for economic growth and diversification, said Minister of Culture Awwad Alawwad. By developing the broader cultural sector, we will create new employment and training opportunities, as well as enriching the
kingdom's entertainment options
The Saudi cinema industry is still nascent but has been receiving more attention over recent years with breakthrough movies like Wadjdah and Barakah meets Barakah. It's a beautiful day in Saudi Arabia! tweeted Haifaa
al-Mansour the first female Saudi director of a feature film, the acclaimed Wadjda.
The announcement by the ministry of culture did not specify whether seating in cinemas would be gender-segregated as most public spaces are in Saudi Arabia or how heavily censored movies will be. Films are usually greatly censored with pixelation
added to cover the chest and legs of actresses. Censorship rules are expected to be announced in the coming weeks. Multiple malls currently being built had already received licenses to build multiplexes before today's announcement.
The first film screened in Saudi Arabia for 37 years was Black Panther albeit a little shorter than the
version playing in the rest of the world due to the censorship of a kiss at the end of the film.
Unsurprisingly movies screened in Saudi cinemas will be subject to approval by government censors. Still, it's a distinct improvement over a total cinema ban. Many Saudi clerics still view Western movies and even Arabic films made in Egypt and
Lebanon as sinful.
US-based AMC, one of the world's biggest movie theater operators, only two weeks earlier signed a deal with Prince Mohammed to operate the first cinema in the kingdom. AMC and its local partner hurriedly transformed a concert hall in the Saudi
capital, Riyadh, into a cinema complex for Wednesday's screening.The new movie theater also came equipped with prayer rooms to accommodate the daily Muslim prayer times.
Screenings are gender segregated in a manner customary at restaurants and cafes. Screenings will generally have a seating area for women who may be accompanied by male relatives, and another area for men only. Some screenings could be designated
as solely for woman+families or for men only.
The cinema won't open to the public for a few days as the first screenings are private, invitation-only events.