Saudi Arabia: A country with a flourishing film scene but no cinemas

Saudi Arabia: A country with a flourishing film scene but no cinemas
Saudi filmmakers have fought legal restrictions and taboos surrounding cinema to produce some of the most exciting movies in the region. None, however, could be screened at home.
4 min read
Haifaa Al-Mansour directed the first Academy Award entry for the Kingdom [Getty]
For decades, Saudi film lovers had to travel abroad to catch the latest Hollywood blockbusters at the cinema.

Billions were spent in hotels, cinemas and restaurants by entertainment-starved Saudis who flocked to neighbouring Bahrain, the UAE and Oman on weekends and public holidays.

Saudi filmmakers at the heart of an exciting new wave in local cinema were also forced to go overseas to have their movies screened at theatres.

All that looks set to change after Riyadh announced on Monday that for the first time in 35 years cinemas would be allowed to open their doors to the public.

Economic gamble

The new reforms are part of the young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s attempts to shake-up the kingdom's crusty image, as he sets in motion an ambitious economic plan called Vision 2030. 

Numerous social reforms pushed through this year by the new de-facto ruler, have been in part to appease Saudi youth who have lived for years under the stifling authority of the country's ultra-conservative ulama.

They are also in place to attract much needed foreign investors, who will be necessary if bin Salman's big economic gamble is to pay off.

"Saudi Arabia is the future of film-making in the Gulf," said Butheina Kazim, the co-founder of Dubai's independent cinema platform, Cinema Akil, told AP.

A crop of Saudi films have emerged in recent years, and Kazim herself screened three Saudi short films to audiences in Dubai.  

Wasati ["Moderate"], is a movie based on real-life events that took place in the kingdom during the 90s when a group of ultra-conservatives activists rushed on stage during a play performance and shut down the theatre. The incident brought the entertainment industry in Saudi Arabia to a standstill for years.

Saudi Arabia had a rich movie scene in the 1960s and 1970s before the threat of religious hardliners forced rulers to clampdown on most forms of public entertainment.

Saudi film Wadjda made history in 2013 when it became the kingdom's first Academy Award entry. Written and directed by Haifaa al-Mansour, it's also the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, and the first ever by a female Saudi director.

The storyline follows Wadjda, an 11-year-old Saudi girl living in the capital Riyadh who dreams of owning a green bicycle. Wadjda dreams of riding a bike and racing her friend, Abdullah - a boy from the neighbourhood - but the conservative society she lives in frowns on her ambitions.

In 2016, Saudi Arabia gave another shot at the Oscars, with a drama-comedy, Barakah meets Barakah selected as the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards.

Two months ago, Netflix bought the international distribution rights, making it the first Saudi film on the streaming service.

The film is a candid love story, telling the story of a Saudi civil servant who falls in love with a popular Instagram blogger.

Royal backing

The emergence of the film scene in Saudi Arabia comes at a time Saudi Arabia relaxes social rules in a country where more than half the population are under 25. Most are active on social media and many have studied abroad.

Prince Mohammed is attempting to push through a series of radical economic reforms to wean the country off its oil reliance.

He is also attempting to shake-up Saudi Arabia's often un-dynamic work culture, high rates of unemployment and its costly welfare state.

Bin Salman likely knows that to foster such a creative environment for business he must also halt the kingdom's brain-drain.

For years now, some of Saudi Arabia's most innovative and liberal young workers leave for Europe, the US and other parts of the Middle East due to restrictions at home.

Signs the government recognise this are there and Riyadh has backed a film festival hosted in the more liberal, eastern city of Dhahran. This year, some 60 Saudi films were screened.

"We have so many incredible stories to tell, whether they are stories of success or challenge. Our society is rich in stories and ideas," Kazim added. 

Saudi Arabia has repeatedly come under fire for its ultra-orthodox approach. Alcohol is banned, gender segregation strictly enforced and women must abide to a dress code.  

In late September, a royal decree was issued that will allow women to take to the roads next June. Stadiums have also opened their doors to Saudi women for the first time and theatres will once again open. 

Critics have warned that these headline-grabbing reforms are mere fig leaves for the government's crackdown on all forms of opposition to the country's rulers. 

It has seen a contradictory programme of authoritarian-led liberalisation in the public sphere with a crackdown on social media and arrest of alleged "traitors", "corrupt" officials and "radicals".

Saudi Arabia's new sweeping counter-terrorism law - which includes jail time for the "crime" of criticising the king and crown prince - has been condemned by Human Rights Watch.

Critics will say that these same restrictions will also apply to films screened at cinemas next year.