In the age of YouTube, what's the point in Saudi Arabia's cinema ban?

In 2008, a rare screening of the Saudi comedy film "Manahi" in Jeddah raised hopes -- that were eventually dashed -- that a then three-decade ban on cinema in the kingdom could be lifted.

Story highlights

  • Saudi Arabia's "Vision 2030" program promises a wave of cultural reforms in order to diversify the kingdom's oil-dependent economy
  • The establishment of the General Entertainment Authority had sparked hopes cinema would be unbanned in Saudi as part of the reforms
  • But the Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al Sheikh subsequently ruled out this option, marking cinema as a "red line" issue

Haifaa al-Mansour is a Saudi Arabian film director. Her debut feature "Wadjda" was the first feature film shot in Saudi Arabia, and the first by a female director. It was submitted by Saudi Arabia in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 86th Academy Awards.

(CNN)This week marked the end of another period of prolonged excitement about the possibility of re-opening cinemas in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which have been banned since the 1980s.

My hopes in this area have been crushed countless times before. But my optimism had been reignited by the recent establishment of the General Entertainment Authority, as part of Saudi Arabia's "Vision 2030" program, which promises a wave of cultural reforms intended to diversify the kingdom's oil-dependent economy.
Film director Haifaa al-Mansour.
As a filmmaker, I bristled with anticipation. I thought of the day in 2012 when the Saudi Arabian Society for Culture and Arts attempted to host a screening of my film "Wadjda" at a small venue in Riyadh to help it qualify for the Academy Awards.
It was the first film ever shot in the Kingdom, and I was so proud to share it with a Saudi audience.
A still from the film "Wadjda", about an 11-year-old girl who dreams of owning a green bicycle.
But I watched helplessly on social media as bystanders posted videos of bearded men descending on the venue to shut it down.
We held other screenings in the German and American embassies, but it felt like a dream deferred.
This time felt different. Like we had moved on.
Wouldn't opening movie theaters be a natural part of any plan to increase domestic entertainment options in a country where people spend most of their time indoors? Does any other country in the world offer a more captive audience?
It could not only prove to be a huge local industry, but also could be easily controlled to fit our culture.
So why is it even an issue?

An "immoral" threat to traditional values

After weeks of hope, the declaration by Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al Sheikh -- the most senior and influential Muslim religious and legal authority in Saudi Arabia -- that cinemas (along with concerts) were "immoral" and a threat to traditional values once again broke my heart.
His comments proved that cinemas remain one of the two "red line" issues within Saudi Arabia that transcend rational discourse.
Along with the issue of women driving, opening movie theaters remains an "all or nothing" symbolic issue that we just can't seem to get past.
Despite the many, positive changes that I have witnessed sweeping the country, with women now working everywhere from the malls to the Shura council, for example, and the great strides we have made in modernizing and adapting to the modern age, we seem doomed to be known internationally as "a country where women still cannot drive and movie theaters are still illegal."

Women banned from driving

Preventing women from driving is a pretty straightforward issue.
While arguably less critical than issues of guardianship or legal representation for women (many legal matters require the approval of a male guardian), it is the one most easily understood internationally as oppressive to the lives of Saudi women.
Conservatives see driving as the final firewall against female empowerment. Controlling our physical mobility is the foundation for all other forms of their oppression.
Saudi women leave a mall in the capital Riyadh in 2014, when activists urged women to defy a traditional driving ban and get behind the wheel.
But why outlaw cinemas? Aren't Saudis free to watch or listen to whatever they want in the privacy of their homes, as one of the most "plugged in" societies in the world? The entire content of the world, uncensored and often free on sites such as YouTube, rests at our fingertips.
And theaters could also be gender segregated the same way all other public areas are divided.
But that's not the problem.
It is a deeper question about the role the arts play in public life in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Right now, all forms of art are treated as a threat to our cultural identity.

"Saudis are rich in culture"

The consequence is that when we see ourselves on the silver screen we see a one-sided, foreign portrayal of Saudis as terrorists, extremists, or culturally primitive outsiders unfit to join the modern world.
That is not my country, and that is not our story.
Twitter has become hugely popular with Saudi Arabians seeking an outlet for their opinions and a place to engage in free discussion.
We are rich in culture, fierce in our humor, burning in intelligence, full of love and hope, and driven by an indelible spirit that cannot be crushed by false narratives or misrepresentation.
We are not victims, or extremists, or simpletons.
The Kingdom is a rich myriad of peoples, and all of us have important stories, ideas and perspectives. There is a special rhythm to our music and prose, and a tapestry of colors and textures that is uniquely our own.
This is the Saudi Arabia that I want to show the world through film.
But we will never be able to truly showcase our stories with pride, or build audiences eager to see them, until we begin to invest in the necessary physical and intellectual infrastructure.
Thankfully, there are a few strong advocates pushing to develop Saudi film.
Prince Al Waleed bin Talal was the only Saudi investor willing to take a chance and support my film. He continues to work at developing the local industry, but we will need more people to join us in this journey if we want our products to truly shine.
Without cinemas, investment in Saudi film will never flourish.
Without Saudi film our side of the story will never truly be told.
Editor's note: Haifaa al-Mansour is a Saudi Arabian film director. Her debut feature "Wadjda" was the first feature film shot in Saudi Arabia, and the first by a female director. It was submitted by Saudi Arabia in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 86th Academy Awards.