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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

In lifting the cinema ban, Saudi Arabia gives voice to people's stories

Films will inspire a generation to see their world reimagined in images of hope

Wadjda by director Haifaa Al Mansour represented the first time Saudi Arabia had entered a film in the Oscars / Courtesy Razor Film Production
Wadjda by director Haifaa Al Mansour represented the first time Saudi Arabia had entered a film in the Oscars / Courtesy Razor Film Production

The announcement to open cinemas in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia could not have come at a better time. As the best and brightest of the Middle Eastern film industry gathered in the UAE for the Dubai International Film Festival, which concluded last week, the world watched as a whole new market suddenly emerged for world cinema. With the prospect of theatres springing up all over the country, producers and distributors immediately began working on ways to tap into this huge, exciting new box office.

For a region that has been ignored for so long, we finally found ourselves in the spotlight of world cinema. It is thrilling news, and I struggle to put into words the level of excitement and anticipation I feel about the possibility of finally showing one of my films publicly in a movie theatre in Saudi Arabia.

It is more than a dream come true; it is the culmination of aspiration I have for my country and for all of the Saudi artists who will finally have a chance to contribute to the positive momentum of our society. I am excited, optimistic and ready to get to work.

As a child growing up in a country without cinemas, we always looked to movies from abroad –from the United States, India, Europe and beyond – to explore the magical realms of imagination far beyond our own borders. My siblings and I would play around with the old antennae of our television set until we would erupt in cheers as we finally captured the static-ridden signals.

I waited eagerly for the short window of time during which Saudi television would broadcast foreign cartoons, dubbed in Arabic, and relish the escape they provided from my small-town life. When I became a filmmaker, I wanted to bring that same magic and adventure of my own country to life through film and give Saudi audiences the chance to see their world reimagined in images of hope, enchantment and vitality.

Cinemas will finally give Saudi audiences the opportunity to experience these stories publicly and collectively. They can laugh and cry and thrill together and feel the emotions of their fellow citizens as they react in a shared space. The discussions, arguments and interactions that follow will be full of questions and ideas that will inspire us to create, explore and engage with the rest of the world.

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Cinema reflects life and depicts universal truths

Relaxing the cinema ban makes sense culturally

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I was so honoured and amazed to win a development grant in the IWC Filmmaker Award at this year's Diff. It was a homecoming for me, as it was the same festival that showed my first short film in 2004, which made it so special to begin this project there as well.

My new animation film is called Miss Camel and tells the story of a Saudi humpbacked creature that wants to travel to the Emirates to participate in a beauty pageant. Melwah, the main character in this story, is a role model for all the incredible young women in our region, who do not know what they are capable of. Her circumstances have made her soft and spoiled and afraid of the world. In standing up for a friend, she takes a small step that leads her into a great adventure. In rising to face her challenges, she finds her own voice and a purpose that she never could have dreamed of. She also learns about her own country, almost like a foreign explorer coming to know a distant land. The sequestered and limited lives of women in our region make them unfamiliar with their own landscape.

I hope the film will serve as a window onto the beauty and diversity of our land, of the wonders and strength of our lost traditions, and give audiences a chance to see places they might never get to see and explore in real life. Through the lens of a children’s story, I hope to present these messages in a conversational way, which will get people thinking and talking about our society without accusation.

I hope this film will inspire Saudi children, especially girls, to challenge the various limitations that our society can burden them with. By showing them as triumphant characters, overcoming similar circumstances in local voices, I hope to motivate them to rise above their local, provincial dreams and aspire to unlimited greatness. This is the power of cinema and it is a power I am so excited to see finally bestowed upon the people of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Bafta-nominated screenwriter and director Haifaa Al Mansour was behind the film Wadjda, Saudi Arabia's first entry for the Oscars