A Saudi film festival concluded a few days ago in the Eastern Province of the Kingdom. In what was a magnificent display of local creativity and an appreciation of the beautiful art of movie-making, local producers, directors, actors and film fans all got together and enjoyed the wonders of the big screen together.
More importantly, the festival served as a reminder that Saudis — like anyone else in the world — can enjoy the magic of motion pictures and experience the thrills and chills of public screenings without any issues.
Of course, this was not the first festival of its kind in the Kingdom; such events have been organized more frequently over the past few years. However, there is no escaping the obvious question: If Saudis and foreigners can enjoy films at these local festivals, then why can’t the Kingdom simply open up public movie theaters, where both locally produced films as well as selected Hollywood blockbusters can be shown?
The ban on cinema in Saudi Arabia is a complicated matter. Technically, there is no law or religious edict (fatwa) that prohibits it and the disappearance of movie theaters (which used to exist up to the 1970s in some Saudi cities) is known to be a recent matter which crept its way into society.
This was possibly based on the “ijtihad” of some overzealous elements and the negligence of officials who may have not seen the matter as a priority... after all, to many people cinema is merely a pastime.
Could there have been an element of media control at that time as well? Possibly... although that argument, if it ever existed, was shredded to bits with the introduction of satellite television in the early 1990s and the Internet a decade later.
Yet today’s Saudi Arabia is incomparable with that of 1980s or 1990s. In fact, the pace of change occurring in the Kingdom is so fast that it is even incomparable to the Saudi Arabia of two years ago!
Yes, there are still plenty of social issues to fix. However, one cannot ignore that in the past six months alone, we have seen live concerts, mixed audiences, visit of Hollywood stars, the Kingdom’s first ever Comic-Con and more art galleries and film activities than perhaps ever before.
Naturally, credit needs to be given where credit is due, and the newly-formed and government-backed General Authority for Entertainment certainly deserves a round of applause for all its efforts to bring joy, laughter and magical moments to the Kingdom and paint a bright future which awaits us within Vision 2030.
Will there be those who are unhappy with a decision to re-open movie theaters? Of course there will be. However, nobody will be forcing them to change their mind or watch a film if they don’t choose to. We must remember that there were also those who opposed schools for girls and if it wasn’t for the late King Faisal and his stern and decisive approach to the matter in the 1960s, women’s education might have been delayed for decades.
Will there be a security risk of having people together in a public arena? Of course there will be. But would that be any more dangerous than attending a football match or flying on a plane?
On the other hand, we need only think of how such a step would allow a wider slice of society to be empowered, cultivated and exposed to this beautiful art form (not everyone can afford to fly to Dubai, Cairo or London to watch a film). Furthermore, we will be creating jobs and a brand new industry, not just for local filmmakers, but for everyone from ticket-booth attendants to ushers and everyone else in the supply-chain of the movie-going business.
We do hope to see cinemas opening soon; after all, the stars could not be any more aligned than they are now.