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Five years ago, Haifaa al-Mansour made history with her moving and critically acclaimed drama Wadjda, making her not just the first female Saudi filmmaker, but the first director to have shot a feature film in the kingdom.
At the time, the idea of Wadjda being released on home soil was ludicrous: its cinema and theaters had long since been closed following the country’s adoption of strict ultra-conservative Islam in the early ‘80s.
On April 18, 2018, however, a new cinematic dawn broke over the kingdom with the opening of Saudi Arabia’s first cinema since the movie theater ban was lifted in December and the first public screening of a commercial film: Black Panther.
Al-Mansour — now Saudi Arabia’s most recognizable filmmaker with Mary Shelley opening in the U.S on May 25, Netflix’s upcoming rom-com Nappilly Ever After and a new animation project on the horizon — was recently added to the board of the country’s General Authority for Culture. And while jury duties at the Tribeca Film Festival (where Mary Shelley is also screening) prevented her from attending the historic screening in Riyadh, she wrote to The Hollywood Reporter with her thoughts on the cinema opening, the “seismic shift” now sweeping over her home nation and why nothing will be the same again.
My heart was in Saudi Arabia last night.
Although I couldn’t be there in person, it was a day I’ve dreamed of since I was a little girl. Today we officially opened our first cinema.
When I saw a picture of the tickets on Instagram, with “Black Panther” written in both English and Arabic, I got goosebumps.
Cinemas were always one of those issues for us, like women driving, that I had resigned myself to believing would never change. But suddenly both issues are on their way to the dustbin of history, with women set to drive in a few short months.
Witnessing such a huge, seismic shift take place in what was previously the most conservative society on the planet gives me faith in impossible dreams. I hope that one theater grows to hundreds, and thousands, and that Saudi Arabia grows to become an audience that filmmakers around the world scramble to win over.
For the first time in my life it not only seems possible, but realistic. It is such an exciting time!
Today I am actually in New York, where I stepped out of a beautiful, ornate and packed theater for the opening of the Tribeca Film Festival, where I am serving on the jury.
I got to laugh and cry for two hours watching the beautiful documentary Love, Gilda.
It is such a magical experience, to be collectively swept away on an emotional rollercoaster with a theater full of strangers. It is an experience that I can’t wait to share with audiences back home, for the first time in public.
It changes everything, for the better, and there is no going back from here.
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