RIYADH, Dec 11, (Agencies): Saudi Arabia on Monday lifted a decades-long ban on cinemas, part of a series of social reforms by the powerful crown prince that are shaking up the ultra-conservative kingdom.
The government said it would begin licensing cinemas immediately and the first movie theatres are expected to open next March, in a decision that could boost the kingdom’s nascent film industry.
Reviving cinemas would represent a paradigm shift in the kingdom, which is promoting entertainment as part of a sweeping reform plan for a post-oil era, despite opposition from hardliners who have long vilified movie theatres as vulgar and sinful.
“Commercial cinemas will be allowed to operate in the Kingdom as of early 2018, for the first time in more than 35 years,” the culture and information ministry said in a statement.
“This marks a watershed moment in the development of the cultural economy in the kingdom,” the statement quoted Information Minister Awwad Alawwad as saying.
Saudi Arabia is expected to have more than 300 cinemas — with over 2,000 screens — all across the kingdom by 2030, the ministry said.
Like most public spaces in the kingdom, cinema halls are expected to be segregated by gender or have a separate section for families.
Hardliners, who see cinemas as a threat to cultural and religious identity, were instrumental in shutting them down in the 1980s.
Saudi Arabia’s highest-ranking cleric warned in January of the “depravity” of cinemas, saying they would corrupt morals.
But authorities appear to be shrugging off the threat, with some comparing Saudi Arabia’s reform drive to a fast-moving bus — either people get on board or risk being left behind.
Saudis themselves appear quietly astounded by the torrid pace of social change, which includes the historic decision allowing women to drive from next June.
Saudi Arabia in recent months has organised music concerts, a Comic-Con pop culture festival and a mixed-gender national day celebration that saw people dancing in the streets to thumping electronic music for the first time.
The social transformation chimes with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s recent pledge to return Saudi Arabia to an “open, moderate Islam” and destroy extremist ideologies.
Saudi filmmakers have long argued that a ban on cinemas does not make sense in the age of YouTube.
Saudi films have been making waves abroad, using the internet to circumvent distribution channels and sometimes the stern gaze of state censors.
“It is a beautiful day in #SaudiArabia!” Saudi female director Haifaa al-Mansour said on Twitter, reacting to Monday’s announcement.
Her film “Wadjda” made history in 2013 after it became Saudi Arabia’s first Academy Award entry.
The film depicts the dream of a 10-year-old girl to get a bicycle just like the boys in her conservative neighbourhood.
This year, the country is again vying for an Oscar with the film “Barakah Meets Barakah”, the kingdom’s first romantic comedy which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival.
Without cinemas, filmmakers said investment in films was unlikely to flourish and the depiction of Saudi society would not move beyond the foreign portrayal of Saudis as extremist or culturally primitive.
“Now our young men and women will show the world possibilities and stories worth seeing,” Saudi filmmaker Aymen Tarek Jamal said on Twitter.
“Congratulations to the 2030 Generation.”
The reform stems partly from an economic motive to boost domestic spending on entertainment as the kingdom reels from a protracted slump in oil prices.
Saudis splurge billions of dollars annually to see movie shows and visit amusement parks in neighbouring tourist hubs like Dubai.
“Opening cinemas will act as a catalyst for economic growth and diversification,” Alawwad said.
“By developing the broader cultural sector we will create new employment and training opportunities, as well as enriching the kingdom’s entertainment options.”
The Dubai fest’s Dubai Film Connection co-production market has announced the winners of $60,000 worth of film funding prizes, the most lucrative of which went to “The Syrians,” a creative documentary project by Tunisian multidisciplinary artist Mohamed Ismail Louti, aka Ismael, about displaced Syrians living in Lebanon.
“The Syrians” won the DFC’s $25,000 DIFF nod and also scooped an invitation to attend the Tribeca Film Institute for curated pitching sessions during that fest as well as a nomination for the next round of Germany’s Robert Bosch Stiftung Foundation’s cash prizes.
Jordanian writer and producer Bassel Ghandour’s “The Alleys,” about a hustling taxi driver who is trying to conceal a forbidden romance in a heavily populated East Amman neighborhood, and the film’s producer Rula Nasser, scored an invite to the Sorfond Pitching Forum, held during the Films from the South Festival in Oslo, on top of the Cinescape/Front Row Award worth $10,000.
Four producers of DFC projects who won complimentary accreditation to the prestigious Producers Network at Cannes are: Haider Rashid (“Europa”); Jessica Landt (“I Dreamt Of Empire”); Nayla Al Khaja (“Animal”) and Anissa Daoud (“God Bless Buddies”).
UAE-born Sudanese filmmaker Amjad Abu Alala’s project “You Will Die At Twenty,” which is set in a Sudanese village where a woman gives birth to a boy who becomes saddled with a Dervish prophecy, won the ART Award; Anwar Boulifa’s “The Unwanted,” which explores the social stigma that women who fall pregnant outside of wedlock endure in Morocco, took the Hideway Entertainment Award; and Beirut-set “Dirty, Difficult, Dangerous” by Wissam Charaf and Hala Dabaji, about a love affair between an Ethiopian housemaid and a Syrian refugee who find solace in each other through their respective struggles, scooped the Centre National du Cinema nod.
Dubai fest managing director Shivani Pandya, who oversees the Dubai Film Market, said there are plenty of new sales agents attending this year. Registered companies include Rezo Films, Memento Films International, Bacfilms, Indie Sales, Curzon Artificial Eye and, for the first time, Netflix.
Dubai Film Connection Award Winners — 2017
DIFF Award – $25,000
* Winning Project: The Syrians
* Director: Mohamed Ismail Laouti
* Producer: Willy Rolle
* ART Award – $10,000
* Winning Project: You Will Die at Twenty
* Director: Amjad Abu Alala
* Producer: Hossam Elouan
* Hideaway Entertainment Award – $10,000
* Winning Project: The Unwanted
* Director: Anwar Boulifa
* Producer: Bertrand Faivre
* Cinescape/Front Row Award – $10,000
* Winning Project: The Alleys
* Director: Bassel Ghandour
* Producer: Rula Nasser
* Centre National du Cinema (CNC) Award – Euros 5,000 ($5,850)
* Winning project: Dirty, Difficult, Dangerous
* Director: Wissam Charaf
* Producer: Charlotte Vincent