Saudi Arabia: Movie theatres are still banned, but the film business is moving on

13 June 2012

Although Saudi Arabia has 27 million inhabitants, there is not a single movie theatre in the kingdom. Movie theatres were banned in the 1980’s in order to appease conservative clerics. The following is an introduction to the film business in the country today.

First “all-Saudi” film
Haifaa Al Mansour has directed one of the first Saudi Arabian feature films ever. CNN reported that the film, called ‘Wadjda’ after its protagonist, is the first film ever to be filmed entirely in Saudi Arabia with an all-Saudi cast. A a German/Saudi co-production, the film was produced with official permission and with support from the Saudi partner Rotana Studio.

‘Wadjda’ was presented to the world at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, but it will be impossible to see it in a theatre in Saudi Arabia.

“If people from Saudi want to see it in a theatre, they will have to travel to Bahrain”, Al Mansour told CNN. “It’s sad that they will have to travel abroad to watch a film that was shot and produced here.”

Saudi’s first female filmmaker
Al Mansour told CNN that when she turned 30, she felt that she really wanted to have a voice, and that was why she decided to get into the film business:

“People don’t listen to women in Saudi, they just jump to the next man to speak. I loved films and just decided to become a filmmaker.”

Al Mansour is supposedly Saudi Arabia’s first female filmmaker. Her mission is to provide a platform for the unheard voices of Saudi women and to help create direct social change for Arab women.

Death threats
With her latest film, Al Mansour hopes to inspire girls to become filmmakers. She wants to help change attitudes to both women and films inSaudi Arabia, but her message is not always welcome:

“People have contacted me with death threats, but that doesn’t matter to me”, she said to CNN. “Everyone in the media business in Saudi receives death threats.”

One of the reasons why Al Mansour has achieved her dreams was the support from her family and her liberal upbringing: “My parents both come from small provincial towns, but they always believed in allowing their daughters to do what they wanted. There’s a lot of pressure on fathers to stop their daughters doing things, but my father never listened to it.”

When she is in Saudi Arabia, Al Mansour only watch films rented from a DVD shop. But in order to rent a movie she has to send her driver to the shop with a list of the films she wants, because women are not allowed to enter the shop: “This never put me off watching films, but it made me want to show [that] they can’t treat us like that.”

YouTube distribution
According to Al-Arabiya, there are 12 million Internet users in Saudi Arabia, but YouTube has as much as 90 million page views every day. The popularity could be explained by the ban on movie theatres. The Internet has become a way for Saudi filmmakers reach their audiences.

One of the filmmakers who deliberately uses YouTube to show his work, is Mohammed Makki. He has made an Internet mini-series called ‘Takki’. International Business Times (IBT) reported that the first episode had more than a million hits on YouTube in the three months following its release. The second and third episodes had more than 700,000 hits each within a month after they were posted.

Avoiding censorship
In ‘Takki’ the audience follows a group of young men trying to make films in the Red Sea city of Jeddah. The mini-series also treats the subject of women’s difficulties in the Saudi society. During the filming, the crew has bent some rules, even filming men and women together managing to avoid conflicts with the religious police.

“We just go ahead and start filming, we don’t stop to ask for official permission as that would slow things down”, Makki explained to IBT.

Arie Amaya-Akkermans, a writer on cinema in the Middle East, told IBT that there is a trend for young filmmakers in Gulf countries to use the Internet as a fast and easy way to get an audience for their films, without the censorship that getting government approval for showing in cinemas would entail.

Local cinema in Saudi Arabia has at least one powerful supporter: Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal is Saudi Arabia’s richest capitalist and a nephew of King Abdullah. He is the owner of the entertainment company Rotana, which was one of the producers behind Al Mansour’s film ‘Wadjda’. Some see the prince’s involvement as a sign that cinema will eventually become more accepted and in the past few years there have been constant rumours that the cinemas in the kingdom would open again.

“I feel Saudi is opening up and it is a great opportunity now for people to bring new concepts into the society”, Al Mansour told Screen Daily: “Saudi is going through a very important shift in its history.”

First episode of ‘Takki’:




International Business Times – 9 June 2012:
With Movie Theaters Banned, Saudi Filmmaker Makes YouTube Splash

CNN – 25 May 2012:
The film director who’s not allowed to go to the movies

Screen Daily – 15 May 2012:
Al Mansour reveals struggles of directing Wadjda


‘Arabs Got Talent’ – without music

The Dubai-based Saudi television group MBC has for two seasons been running the tv show ‘Arabs Got Talent’, a global viewing phenomenon with national versions televised in 32 countries. This year, a Saudi group is among the finalists. In June 2012, Al-Hayat daily reported that the contest is also going to being held north of the capital in the city of Buraydah, known for its ultra-conservatism as a centre for Wahhabism, a strict interpretation of Islam that is followed in the desert kingdom.

Buraydah has created its own version of the ‘Arabs Got Talent’ television reality show with no music, singing or dancing and with women banned from taking part. Instead, competitors will be permitted to perform religious chants, recite poems and engage in sports events.

The Saudi version, organised by the Internet Buraydah Forum, will take place in the open air before a jury comprising a poet, a television producer and TV presenters.



Hindustan Times – 14 June 2012:
No music, women for Arab’s reality show

The Independent – 12 June 2012:
The XY Factor: Saudi Arabian talent show Buraydah’s Got Talent bans singing. And women.


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