Popcorn revolution in Saudi Arabia?

If you think this is a Saudi cinema you are mistaken. It's a "projection auditorium".

Hot on the heels of a disputed report that women over the age of 30 may soon be allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia between the hours of 7am and 8pm Saturday to Wednesday, and between noon and 8pm on Thursdays and Friday, provided they are not wearing make-up, there's news that the kingdom is grappling with another great moral issue of the past: cinema.

Four government bodies – the Interior Ministry, the Supreme Commission for Tourism and Antiquities, the General Commission for Audiovisual Material and the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (the religious police) – have been mulling the question of "establishing cinema houses" and have now given them the green light, according to Arab News.

As with women's driving, cinemas have never been formally banned in Saudi Arabia – they are just not allowed. As recently as the early 1907s, films were watched by mixed audiences in the kingdom, with the women often unveiled, but cinemas gradually disappeared when reactionary religious elements gained the upper hand after the assassination of King Faisal in 1975. Faisal, who had taken the controversial step of permitting television, was regarded as too much of a moderniser by the clerics.

Attempts to reintroduce cinema have been going on for the best part of a decade. In 2005, Riyadh municipality gave permission for a programme of cartoon films to be shown in a hotel to audiences of women and children, three times a night for a period of two weeks. 

In 2010, a five-screen cinema opened in a shopping complex in Dammam (see picture above). When this attracted media attention the owners became nervous and, contrary to the impression given by the illuminated sign outside saying "cinema", denied that it was in fact a cinema. It was actually a "projection auditorium" for the "intellectual development of children", they said. The non-cinema was reported to be showing only cartoon films.

A film festival backed by the liberal billionaire Prince Alwaleed was established in Jeddah in 2006, with the aim of making it an annual event. Three festivals were held successfully, but in 2009 the fourth festival was abruptly cancelled by the authorities on the eve of its opening. An officially-approved film festival was also held in Dammam in 2008, though it has not been repeated.

Films continue to be shown in some places behind locked doors. Here's an account of one such showing, in 2012.

Despite the lack of recognised cinemas, the kingdom has a number of independent film-makers, who often work under duress:

"Outdoor shoots are huge hassles with actors of both genders. Invariably, the religious police arrive and shut down filming, sometimes arresting everyone, despite a five-year-old royal order allowing photography and filming anywhere in the kingdom unless expressly forbidden by posted signs."

Regarding the latest moves, Arab News says:

"The issue of cinemas in Saudi Arabia resurfaced when a number of media sources published news that allowed the establishment of cinema houses according to Shariah rules, especially after some Saudi producers showed their movies outside Saudi Arabia, and some of them received a number of international awards.

"Gulf countries receive large numbers of Saudis during the holiday seasons, achieving huge financial returns, which give private investors clear signs of the feasibility of achieving substantial financial returns. Those opposed to the establishment of cinema in the Kingdom say that Saudi society is a distinguished one, and its values and traditions do not allow such activities.

"The film Wadjda by [female] Saudi director Haifa Al-Mansour, which is the latest Saudi film, received three international awards during the 69th Venice Film Festival. It became the first Saudi film in the foreign language category to win the award in 2013.

"Wadjda, produced by Rotana and Razer films and High Look, was written and directed by Haifa Mansour, which talks about a girl who lives in Riyadh and her journey to own a bicycle."

Needless to say, several comments posted by readers under the Arab News report predict social disaster if cinemas are allowed to open:

  • "when cinema was introduced in Hyderabad India there were some rules like ladies and gents were not allowed to sit together even if they were families and indecent scenes were censored but now today in 2014 youngsters go to cinema to get intimate! what happened to Hyderabadi society will happen to Saudi in next 10-15 years i think"

  • "Feels like fitna is coming to the holy lands. Ponder the Hadith 'All of my ummah will be forgiven except those who sin openly' May Allah protect us."

  • "it is like allowing a monkey to jump in a container, full of bananas. do you think he will eat them or use them as ammunition for this slingshot. soon the place will turn into a dump with all the bad happening you already see at malls and beaches. i can already imagine sticky notes with mobile no on them flying around or being stuck to the seats. oh look there is ALBAIK chicken leg stuck in the seat!!"

  • "Lahawlawalakhuwata illabilla, This is just the tip of the iceberg, every country started with the same intention of clean cinema as generations passed those rules were relaxed as we have fact in-front of our eyes today, The same cinemas is causing many problems across families, marital relationship & what not... Request Saudi KING to cancel cinemas in the Kingdom..."

  • "First of all this is SAUDI ARABIA is ISLAMIC COUNTRY 100 percent and TWO HOLY MASJID MAKKAH MUKAKARAMAH and MADINA MUNAWARAH so that cinema is not match and also not applicable here, nowdays there are television, mobile,tab,note in these electronic device people watching the movies,but why cinema here no need at all, whatever i written is true and fact,thanks."

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Tuesday, 11 November 2014