Last week, history was made following the reintroduction of cinema in our country after more than three decades of being off screen for whatever cultural or religious reasons.
The joy of Saudi people following the decision by Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, deputy premier and minister of defense, to bring back cinema as a key component in the shaping of the Saudi entertainment industry knew no bounds. A great segment of our society was finally relieved, and saw the decision implemented with the screening of the film Black Panther in Riyadh.
There are a good percentage of our society who still see cinema as a medium of cultural invasion and a threat to our values. There were naysayers everywhere for every change citing this very reason to sustain the status quo without caring to join the march of progress or a global norm.
In every case there are those who will agree or disagree with any introduction of anything in our society, and each will have their own reasons. But when the interest of the majority in the society is in the affirmative, then it would be logical to assent to their wishes after a through study.
I have to admit here that I am an addict of cinema and see absolutely no problem with its reintroduction as I see that it will do more good than harm, especially if we are going to create our own cinema content and export it, which I will elaborate later in this article. Saudis have been hankering for cinema and it is evident when we even travel abroad, especially to Dubai, just for the cinematic experience.
During vacation when Saudis flock to Dubai, or any other destination, the overwhelming majority of them spend a good time of their holidays watching movies. I must confess, I too am guilty of this practice, and sometimes find it funny to find a mini Saudi Arabia in the theaters in Dubai, as most of the moviegoers are Saudis.
My Emirati friends and some of my expat friends, who live and work in Dubai, always tell me that we leave the cinema to Saudis during vacation as it gets over crowded.
With the majority in our society being youth and with the support from our authorities, we can turn this industry into something profitable by not only basking in the entertainment value but by creating our own contentMahmoud Ahmad
I also know some of my Saudi friends, who exhibit a split personality when it comes to their opinion about cinema, as I always get into an argument with them over their seemingly double-faced attitude toward cinema — they see it as forbidden to open cinema in Saudi Arabia and yet they would be the first ones in line in Dubai or Emirates malls buying the latest movie tickets.
Their argument always is that it is OK to see it abroad, but not in our country. Although I find this claim inane, but there was no way to argue with them on this issue, for they would stubbornly and repeatedly profess this reason in their comments in the past and it would get you nowhere.
For all the stonewalling by my friends in the past, I’m eagerly waiting now for their comments and opinion with the opening of cinema in our country and how normal and smooth the screening has been. What they think now would be something I would relish to listen, but knowing them they are sure to come up with another frivolous reason and repeat it bald-faced.
The pros and cons, the dos and don’ts, and the nuts and bolts of setting up the cinema and systemizing it will always be a topic of discussion. But today, after expressing my wholehearted support for the reintroduction of cinema here, my main talking point is now that the start has been made, we need to grow this medium.
We need to invest in our own content creation and work on exporting it. The United States through Hollywood and India through Bollywood and a whole lot of regional ‘woods’ are doing an excellent job in content creation to a level that they are exporting their culture and heritage through cinema to other countries.
I know, during the 80s, when Bollywood, through its exports of its films in videocassettes had a strong presence in the region. We were influenced heavily by Indian movies, which could be viewed along with family in homes, as it was very popular during that time. I know of Saudis, in the 80s and 90s, who were able to sing a whole song from an Indian movie in pure Hindi, without understanding a single word and its meaning while being very clear in the pronunciation of the lyrics.
The same thing can be said of American movies, who focused and trialed on every genre in their projections, as they worked hard to reach that level of international domination and recognition. Today Hollywood is a byword for cinematic excellence. Let us look to our region too and see how Egypt through more than 100 years in cinema content creation has dominated culturally and managed to export their culture and literature to the rest of the Arab world.
With the majority in our society being youth and with the continuous perfect support from our authorities, we can turn this industry into something profitable by not only basking in the entertainment value but by creating our own content. We have Saudi male and female actors and young Saudi directors with promising future if given the needed support.
The image of an Arab or a Muslim in Hollywood as a backward bloodthirsty terrorist, which is a fake, and a stereotypical image and the product of others’ imagination now can be challenged. We need to correct these misconceptions and export our own image. In the long run, this will reflect positively on our culture.
In addition to the youth being the standard-bearers of our culture, it would also open up new vistas for honing their creativity. They with their creative initiatives would be the soft ambassadors of Saudi Arabia, enabling a connect with others in the global village, while giving life to their creative juices that could over time even transcend cultural boundaries.
Let us embrace this new experience and turn it to our benefit. For sure it will create jobs for young Saudis and, for sure youth who were segregated in the past and had nowhere to go, can now find relief in watching movies just like they do when they are abroad.
Let us waste no time and start quickly innovating and creating our own content and use whatever positivity that comes from it to improve our country by discussing our own problems and finding ways to solve them. A whole new experience awaits us.
This article was first published in the Saudi Gazette.
Mahmoud Ahmad is Managing Editor of Saudi Gazette for Local and Gulf Affairs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and his Twitter handle is @anajeddawi_eng.