Last week, the Jeddah Film Festival pulled out all the stops to give Saudi Arabians their first moviegoing experience. Families walked down the red carpet and grabbed their popcorn in preparation for screenings of the notorious 85-minute Candy Crush commercial “The Emoji Movie” and the film adaption of “Captain Underpants.” While they may not be cinematic masterpieces, these films are accessible first steps for Saudi Arabia’s entry into the wider world of entertainment.
The film festival came in the wake of an upheaval of Saudi Arabia’s 35-year ban on cinema, and this change was part of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030, an agenda designed to diversify Saudi Arabia’s economy and transition Saudi society away from ultraconservative enforcement of Sharia and towards a more moderate practice of Islam. Over the past year, Saudi Arabia has opened its doors to concerts, comedy shows and even Comic-Con, and now the nation plans to have 300 cinemas by 2030.
Though Saudi Arabian audiences seem to be enjoying their first taste of the movies, this reform isn’t without controversy. Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority, the Grand Mufti, has cautioned against the screenings of commercial films, referring to them as filled with “depravity.” To quell possible backlash, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Culture and Information has promised that films would be properly censored in accordance with Islamic law. Publicly screened films are likely to follow similar standards as in-flight movies featured on Saudi Arabia’s private airline Saudia which bans films with nudity and sex, pixelates images of alcohol and bare skin and primarily features action and family films.
The reform has also sparked worries over the decreasing influence of religious authorities in Saudi Arabia. Though Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms on public entertainment and women’s rights are liberalizing Saudi Arabian society, they have also come at the consequence of potential instability. Saudi Arabia’s religious authorities have held an important role in Saudi Arabian government by granting the monarchy religious legitimacy. However, because these reforms diminish their power, Mohammed bin Salman must tread lightly to ensure that religious backlash does not undermine faith in the Saudi government.
This article first appeared in the Friday, January 26, 2018, Edition of The Echo.