In his 2006 documentary Cinema 500km, Saudi filmmaker Abdullah Al Eyaf detailed how Saudis who wanted to visit the cinema had to travel to neighbouring countries to do so, following a man in Riyadh as he made the 500km journey to Bahrain to watch just one film. In Bahrain — just a short drive over the King Fahd Causeway for those living near the Saudi city of Dammam — he spoke to the head of a cinema who claimed that 90 percent of his customers were from the Kingdom.
Bahrain wasn’t the only destination. In 2012, the then mayor of Riyadh asserted that some 230,000 tourists from Saudi had flown to the United Arabia Emirates in the summer of 2010 “simply for the sake of watching movies.”
More than a decade on, and, thanks to the 35-year ban on cinemas being lifted in late 2017, Saudi Arabia now has a burgeoning cinema industry of its own and boasts one of the fastest growing box offices on the planet as multiplexes open up across the country.
Saudis may now no longer need to travel overseas to get their fill of big screen action, but, in a major reversal of historical cultural trends, residents of neighbouring countries are now having to journey to Saudi Arabia to if they’re to get around strict cinema restrictions on home soil.
Earlier this week, Warner Bros.’ $1 billion-plus behemoth Barbie was banned in Kuwait for promoting “ideas and beliefs that are alien to the Kuwaiti society and public order,” according to the chairman of the country’s film censorship committee Lafy Al-Subei’e, who also asserting that the film carried “ideas that encourage unacceptable behavior and distort society’s values.” Meanwhile, the film looks set to be banned in Lebanon, where the culture minister Mohammad Mortada claimed that it “promotes homosexuality” and “contradicts values of faith and morality,” by diminishing the importance of the family unit.
The news came just days after it was revealed that Barbie would hit cinemas in Saudi Arabia, where it finally went on wide release on August 10 (and is currently swamping schedules — many sites showing in excess of 10 screenings a day).
In response to the announcements from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, a Kuwaiti blogger quickly published information on social media for fellow residents looking to see the film and willing to cross the border. Under the title “How to Watch Barbie if You Live in Kuwait,” the 248.com website posted details on Instagram of the three closest cinemas showing the film in the Saudi cities of Al-Jubail, Dammam and Al Khobar. “If you’ve never driven to Saudi before, it’s super easy,” it added. “You also don’t have to worry about [a] visa since any resident of Kuwait can get one.”
With the nearest cinema on the list still being more than two hours away, the lengthy return journey may put off those only marginally interested in seeing what all the Barbie fuss is about, and there are no figures available of how many people may have taken up the challenge.
But Barbie‘s different fortunes in the Gulf and what it means to moviegoers do offer up an example of how far Saudi Arabia — a country where public cinemas and any real form of film industry simply didn’t exist prior prior to 2018 — has come in just a few short years.
As for Cinema 500km director Al Eyaf, he’s currently the head of the Saudi Film Commission.