By improving opportunities for Saudi filmmakers, fans, and critics to make, access, and engage with cinema, this move has the power to positively influence film culture both in and outside the region.
A little over two months after Saudi Arabia’s ultraconservative government announced the lifting of the driving ban for women, another official statement harked the return of something else that had been bizarrely absent from Saudi society: movie theaters. Nearly forty years since public film screenings last took place in the country, Marvel’s record-breaking Black Panther will break the decades-old embargo in a newly established Riyadh theater on April 18.
This news reminded me of a scene in Barakah Meets Barakah – only the second feature ever to be submitted to the Oscars by the country – in which a young Saudi man played by Hisham Fageeh laments the loss of liberty between the time his father’s generation were young and the present day, all whilst the camera flicks through photographs demonstrating how rich and unrestricted culture was in ‘70s Saudi. Fageeh delivers a poignant monologue that suggests his generation feel betrayed by their parents’; referring to the tightening of laws that banned cinemas and musical concerts in 1979, he addresses his father directly and says, “Your generation lived life to the fullest, then got scared once you aged. You made it, but you didn’t defend our generation’s rights.”
It’s the most explicitly political moment in the film, and it’s one that speaks directly to the reality of the country’s young people, who (as one 2017 estimate has it) make up 70% of the total population, a figure well above the world average. Thanks to overseas travel opportunities and the Internet, much of Saudi’s youth are no strangers to movie theaters, and neither are the country’s non-Saudi residents (a third of its population in 2015), many of whom will be well aware that Saudi’s strict bans on public engagement with film and music are an exception as far as the rest of the world goes.
Wherever there’s a will, though, there’s a way, and the sense of generational angst expressed in Barakah has produced several workarounds to the lack of cinemas in Saudi. From my own experience living in the eastern part of the country, I know that driving the few hours to Bahrain (a neighboring country where theaters are legal) just to see a film is a common weekend activity for many movie fans.
These kinds of cinematic pilgrimages can be relatively expensive, though, and so it’s a solution only available to those who have the means and live close to the border. Another cheaper, easier and more common way to replicate the theater experience has been to convert unused buildings or rooms in private residential compounds into makeshift cinemas. However, without access to officially distributed new movies, the films screened in these ad hoc theaters are limited to those already available on DVD, and watching a months-old movie isn’t exactly the ideal way to reproduce the feeling of being connected to the rest of the world that cinema-goers everywhere else can enjoy.
Saudi’s current goal is to open 40 AMC theaters over the next five years, with other entertainment companies contributing another 200 or so by 2030, a move that should finally give film fans in the country a much more accessible outlet for their cinephilia, and go some way to assuaging the sense of FOMO that long-time residents of this ultraconservative country are familiar with. Should Saudi follow the lead of demographically similar countries like the UAE, its cinemas would also be able to cater to the entertainment needs of its migrant population by screening regional cinema from countries like Egypt and regions like South Asia (both heavily represented in the country’s non-Saudi population).
This news is obviously of great bearing for the future of filmmakers in Saudi, too. While local directors and actors have driven a resurgence of national cinema in recent years, the lack of state support and outlets for release have severely stunted the number of movies coming out of Saudi: in recent times, this number has been capped at a dire total of two features. The films that have made it out of the country – Haifaa al-Mansour’s stunning low-key feature Wadjda and Mahmoud Sabbagh’s incisive romantic satire Barakah Meets Barakah – prove that there’s plenty of home-grown acting and filmmaking talent in Saudi, but their relative rarity speaks to the difficulties involved with filmmaking in the country. Filming for Barakah required hefty paperwork, for example, while the challenges al-Mansour faced in filming Wadjda were made more complex by her gender: some scenes required her directing her cast and crew from the back of a van, for example, it is taboo for women to be seen with non-related men in public.
There’s a sad irony in the fact that, after observing the country’s severe restrictions in the making of the film, Sabbagh and al-Mansour’s films were forced to debut abroad, having been denied public screenings in Saudi. As al-Mansour puts it, “I make films for Saudis. I want to talk to them. Provoke them. Make them think about the issues. But it’s hard when they cannot see my work.” With the legalization of public movie screenings at long last, filmmakers like al-Mansour could finally have access to their intended audiences — although the extent that this is true will depend on how strict Saudi’s inevitable censorship regulations on movie content will be.
Barakah stars Fageeh and Fatima Al-Banawi have both argued for the importance of Saudis like al-Mansour and Sabbagh reclaiming the narrative about their country on the global stage and in a local sense, where authentic, modern story-telling is sorely needed. That first point is of particular relevance for movie-goers outside of the Middle East, given that it’s common for the ultraconservative politics of Saudi’s government to be treated interchangeably with its diverse peoples (along with intra-Saudi diversity, the country has a higher proportion of migrants than the US). Again, as-yet unannounced censorship rules will impact what stories do get told, but if future films from Saudi can shine a spotlight on the multiplicity of experiences lived there, then cinema may at least be able to help foster the kind of cross-cultural exchange that has so far seemed to elude us.
It’s likely that the establishment of an official cinematic infrastructure in Saudi will also bring with it proper channels through which film critics in the country can express their thoughts. This has the power to positively influence film communities all over the world, insofar as it can help diversify the range of voices within in film criticism circles. Western writers have historically had a monopoly in the field (irrespective of where the movies written about have come from), but some of these critics aren’t always equipped to grasp the significance or nuance in movies from the Middle East or other non-Western regions. The more voices that can properly engage with films from these places, then, the healthier film criticism’s global community will be.
To illustrate this point, take Wadjda‘s example: where some Western reviewers of the film got hung up on the “exoticness” of getting a glimpse into the movie’s Saudi characters’ lives, critics from or living in Saudi (particularly women) would have been able to fully engage with the film as a piece of art rather than as a “foreign” curiosity, but a lack of structural opportunities made this difficult. Given the mutually-educational potential of critical writing, the existence of an established critics’ community in Saudi would be an invaluable accompaniment to its burgeoning film industry for Saudi audiences, filmmakers and international movie fans and critics alike.
Film, like writing, has the potential to transform unhealthy ingrained attitudes in Saudi society, too, something al-Mansour’s work displays a deep consciousness of. While it’s wise not to overstate the ability of cinema to solve all of Saudi society’s problems — especially if censorship laws are set tightly — it’s not an exaggeration to recognize that movies are rarely ever just movies, and, as such, that the similarly wide-ranging conversations they inspire can have real political power.
That’s part of what makes Black Panther being the first movie to be screened in Saudi particularly striking, given that the Middle East has its own fraught history with anti-black racism (racism directed at South Asian migrants in the country is another acute problem within the region). This is an issue that has intersected with conversations about film in the Middle East before: as recently as in February of this year, the UAE’s first animated feature, Bilal: A New Breed of Hero, sparked a debate on the way blackness is (or, more accurately, isn’t) represented in the region’s films. Black Panther inspired much critical reflection about race in the US, so it’s not too much of a stretch to hope — as Shanghai-based writer Niesha Davis does in relation to the film’s release in China — that it can do something similar in Saudi and the Middle East, the region Malcolm X once lauded for its apparent racial equality but where stories of sub-Saharan African domestic workers being abused are disturbingly common.
It’s too early to tell how movie screenings and the country’s cinematic output will be affected by censorship regulations, but existing content rules in other Gulf countries suggest that parameters will likely be set to exclude profanity, nudity, blasphemy, and anything else that offends national sensibilities. While this will undoubtedly put a limit on the number and focus of cinematic stories that are shown and made in the country, the general legalisation of cinema should at least go some way to enriching the lives of those who live there, whether they be movie-goers or movie-makers. As international film fans and critics, what we can tentatively hope for is that this move will help to redress the historic imbalance that has hindered our understanding of each other, whether through the sharing of movies or the critical perspectives that will help broaden our understanding and appreciation of movies from the region.