Saudi Arabia has its first cinema screening in 35 years, and this is the movie they picked

Saudi Arabia has just lifted a 35-year-old ban on cinemas, and picked an, uh, interesting movie for the first screening.

Ready? The Emoji Movie. Yep.

The very first film hitting cinema screens in three and a half decades was 2017’s animated feature about a city populated by talking emojis. It’s currently sitting at 9 percent on Rotten Tomatoes — although, granted, it has a 39 percent audience score. And it’s targeted at children.

But hey, let’s celebrate the fact that it was shown at all.

The conservative kingdom’s Ministry of Culture and Information agreed to issue licenses for cinemas on Dec. 11, 2017. According to Reuters, the country’s first permanent theatres could open as early as March 2018, and the authorities are sponsoring temporary cinemas for now — one, in Jeddah’s cultural hall, apparently has a popcorn machine. Films will be censored to adhere to the “moral values” of the kingdom — exactly what these censored films look like remains to be seen.

“Until now, there is no infrastructure for movie theaters, so we are trying to take advantage of (alternative) venues to approximate the cinematic form,” Mamdouh Salim told Reuters. He organised the first week of screenings in Jeddah with brand Cinema 70 brand. 

“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.”

Cinemas have been banned in Saudi Arabia since the early 1980s, due to conservative Islamists wanting to discourage any form of entertainment or leisure activity that enables men and women to mingle in public — they were seen as a corrupting influence.

Conservative critics, including the head of Saudi Arabia’s religious authority,grand mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, are staunchly against the cinema ban lift. 

“Motion pictures may broadcast shameless, immoral, atheistic or rotten films,” he said on his television show. “There is nothing good in song parties, for entertainment day and night, and opening of movie houses at all times is an invitation to mixing of sexes.”

The Emoji Movie doesn’t seem too surprising a pick, now does it? 

The cinema push is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s so-called Vision 2030, an ambitious package of social-economic reforms to lessen the kingdom’s dependence on oil and return the kingdom to “moderate Islam”

The reforms have also seen significant changes such as allowing women to drive in June 2018 and letting them into sport stadiums in Oct. 2017. 

Additional reporting by Gianluca Mezzofiore.

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