Since the 1980s, movie theaters have been a rarity in Saudi Arabia. Due to the hyper-conservative ideologies that have dictated the nation’s political landscape through the latter part of the 20th century and into the new millennium, most of the theaters were taken down and/or repurposed throughout the decade in order to avoid the mixing of the sexes in theaters, and the influence and increasingly “indecent” content of Western movies. (At one time, video stores were a major cultural force throughout Saudi Arabia, but many of them were replaced by the evolution of home viewing technologies, as in other parts of the world.)
However, after 35 years of theatrical viewing being banned in the country, this past weekend saw a substantial change in the decades-long policy. The Emoji Movie was screened in the city of Jeddah for all audiences; as Reuters reports, “The first permanent theaters could open as early as March, part of a liberalizing reform drive that has already opened the door to concerts, comedy shows and women drivers over the past year.” In the meantime, a tent theater has allowed for screenings to be enjoyed, even rolling out the red carpet and selling popcorn.
Granted, it’s easy to chortle at the fact that, of all movies to break down a major cultural barrier, it’d be the critically panned Emoji Movie. You know, the one where Patrick Stewart plays the poop emoji, and a series of animated characters gallivant through Sony’s beloved Crackle app. But this is a major step forward for Saudi Arabian audiences, who have frequently been forced to migrate to nearby countries for their entertainment due to the country’s notoriously restrictive customs. However, it’s also worth noting that “In a nod to conservatives, films will be censored to make sure they remain in line with the kingdom’s ‘moral values.'”
The Emoji Movie may be the first feature to screen in a very long time in Saudi Arabia, and we can only hope that as the country’s modernity reforms begin to take shape, it’ll be far from the last.