Saudi Arabia made history on December 11 when it was announced the country would officially be lifting its 35-year ban on cinema. The decision caused many to wonder what the first movie to screen publicly would be. Would representatives go with a classic? A superhero film? An acclaimed local indie like “Wadjda”? The real answer it turns out is perhaps the most critically reviled U.S. film of 2017: “The Emoji Movie.”
Reuters reports that the Sony-backed animated comedy “The Emoji Movie” was the first film to screen publicly in Saudi Arabia on January 13. The movie was screened as a double feature with “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie.” While the country continues to wait for its first movie theater to open sometime in March, authorities have begun sponsoring temporary theater locations. “The Emoji Movie,” for instance, screened at a state-run cultural hall in Jeddah.
“Until now, there is no infrastructure for movie theaters, so we are trying to take advantage of (alternative) venues to approximate the cinematic form,” event organizer Mamdouh Salim told Reuters. “We tried to use these films to be a starting point as the first cinematic screening after the decision on Dec. 11 to permit movie theaters.”
Despite the fact that Saudi Arabia has lifted its ban, the government will still censor all films to make sure they agree with the country’s cultural standards. Following the first theater’s opening this spring, the plan is to continue building theaters so that there are over 300 cinemas with over 2,00 screens by 2030.
The conservative government banned cinemas in the early 1980s because it felt such locations encouraged public mixing between men and women. Over the last several years, however, filmmaking and film interest in Saudi Arabia has boomed.
Haifaa al Mansour became the first woman to direct a feature with 2013’s “Wadjda,” which was selected as the country’s first official Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language film. Mahmoud Sabbagh’s 2014 feature “Barakah Meets Barakah” was the country’s second film submitted to the Oscars and its first to play at the Berlin Film Festival.