O ne thing that my son and I miss the most since moving from the states to Saudi Arabia is simply going to the movies. There used to be movie theaters in KSA back in the 1970s. But when the big oil development boom arrived in the Kingdom, along with it came a more austere return to religious conservatism. Movie theaters were forced to close down and they have disappeared for the last thirty years.
The past few years have seen a growing movement toward a more progressive Saudi Arabia, but at every turn, calls for change have been met with opposition from the ultra-conservative and very influential religious faction. A few days ago, the 4th Annual Jeddah Film Festival was cancelled just hours before it was to begin. No reasons were given for the cancellation, which was handed down by the Interior Ministry. Many cultural activities are prohibited in Saudi Arabia. Any form of dance is non-existent (except at private functions, like parties or weddings where women dance but men are not present), music is frowned upon by many, and even simple innocent book fairs have been closed down here.
Cancelling the Jeddah Film Festival is a huge disappointment and a big setback for those who want to see social changes in Saudi Arabia. It must be a crushing blow to the fledgling Saudi film makers and promoters who had put their best efforts forward to make the popular festival a success. Months of planning went down the tubes in an instant. Over 70 Middle Eastern films were set to be shown and movie business bigshots had flown in from various MidEast countries to attend the planned weeklong event.
I certainly don't understand how on the one hand a cultural event like a film festival is cancelled, yet on the other hand, all types of movies on DVD are readily available in Saudi Arabia and we can view uncensored shows on satellite TV like Sex in the City and Nip/Tuck.
Saudi religious leaders have called movies evil and are adamantly against Western social influences which they feel will bring unacceptable lower standards to the Saudi way of life. They see the West as immoral purveyors of smut. They want to be able to control the population's behavior by restricting access to things that they see as indecent or against the religion. Within the royal family itself, there is disagreement about whether or not cinema should make a comeback in KSA. But one thing is for certain - the Saudi people themselves are avid fans of the big screen.
Last winter a Saudi comedy was shown to Jeddah and Taif audiences and was so successful that it was shown as many as eight times a day to accommodate the 25,000 people who attended. I read that the audiences consisted of men and women, which is another rare occurrence in and of itself, because in Saudi Arabia, unrelated men and women are restricted from socializing together. The same comedy was screened in June in Riyadh, but women were not allowed to attend. Only men and children were let in. There was a group of ultra-conservative men outside protesting the event in an attempt to discourage people from seeing the movie. Despite that, the movie goers enjoyed themselves - and the movie and the popcorn.
What strikes me often here in KSA is that some people seem to feel that having fun is wrong and that people should not do things that are fun - that fun is a form of decadence, and that in itself is against religious teachings so therefore it is wrong. Is this really what religion tells us? Or are we again just at the mercy of some misguided interpretations?