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"Black Panther" was shown last night at a movie theater in Saudi Arabia. It was an invitation-only event that marked the end of a three-decade-old ban on cinema in the ultraconservative kingdom, and more theaters are supposed to open soon. NPR's Jackie Northam went to the city of Jeddah for a look at Saudi showbiz. She says filmmakers are eager to light up the screens, and the censor is ready to check their work.
JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: You need to climb three flights of stairs to reach Cinepoetics production company. Its rooms are bright and cluttered with film posters. In one room, there are sagging couches and a large white wall to watch movies. The founder and filmmaker Abdulrahman Khawj has given the space a glorified name after Sidney Lumet, one of his film heroes.
ABDULRAHMAN KHAWJ: That's the Sidney Lumet theater, I think my favorite director. I love him and his work.
NORTHAM: What was your favorite movie?
KHAWJ: I think "The Verdict" is my favorite movie of his, although "Network" is very close also, yeah.
NORTHAM: The 30-year-old Khawj has welcomed us to talk about this new era for Saudi filmmakers in which cinemas are no longer haram, forbidden.
KHAWJ: For me, it's fantastic. I no longer want to flee the country and go to New York. Here we're doing something very new.
NORTHAM: Khawj says it will be much easier now to get permits to shoot feature-length movies and less chance of being harassed by religious police. Khawj says it's always nerve-wracking auditioning females for movie roles in this highly segregated country. He was once hauled into the police, accused of solicitation.
KHAWJ: I walked out of there. I sat in my car and almost cried because what we do is already hard as it is, and then having all this pressure and having every little move you do criminalized.
NORTHAM: Allowing cinemas in the kingdom again is part of a drive by the Saudi government to modernize the country and create more business opportunities. It hopes to turn Saudi Arabia into a regional hub for moviemaking. But while the government may say it's all right to make commercial films, it's a tough place to work.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Unintelligible) Take two and action.
NORTHAM: Not far from Khawj's studio, an all-female crew works on a short film. We spent some time with the crew, including Reem Almodian. The 22-year-old is petite and fine-boned, wearing an abaya and a dark blue headscarf.
REEM ALMODIAN: I really wanted to be an actress, but it's kind of something I cannot actually talk to my parents about.
NORTHAM: Almodian's parents told her she had to cover her face if she wanted to be on screen. So she decided to go behind the scenes, enrolling in Saudi Arabia's only film school at an all-female university. But her family doesn't see filmmaking as a good career choice and doesn't like her mixing with men on the set.
ALMODIAN: They don't like it. But they know that it's my dream and it's a thing that I want to follow, so they're supporting me on that side. But they actually don't like it.
NORTHAM: It's not like Saudis haven't seen movies. There are private showings in homes. There's HBO and Netflix. And short films on YouTube are hugely popular, as are TV serials like this one called "Takki."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TAKKI")
NORTHAM: But even the established creator of that show, Mohammed Makki, thinks lifting the ban on cinemas is a huge deal. His lifelong dream has been to make full-length feature films, and he wants Saudis to be able to see films from their own country.
MOHAMMED MAKKI: I'm sure Egyptian cinema or American cinema - they're going to come in and show their films here. We kind of have a small fear that they might take over if we don't go with our own films.
NORTHAM: Still, Makki says while Saudi filmmakers may lack the technical expertise of Hollywood, they can tap into a rich vein of Saudi stories that haven't been told for decades.
MAKKI: We are the people who lives here, and we have to tell our own stories. They don't know us as much as we know each other. That's our advantage point.
NORTHAM: Still, Saudi Arabia is an ultraconservative kingdom with an absolute monarchy that keeps tight control over expression. All movies will be subject to censorship. There will be red lines - no nudity or criticism of the political and religious establishment. But the censor told NPR everything else remains unclear. Redha Mohammed al Haider says he's having trouble coming up with rules given the rapid changes in the country.
REDHA MOHAMMED AL HAIDER: A certain scene could be viewed as normal for one individual, but for another individual, it's not appropriate. So how can we come up to an understanding where the majority of people at least agree that this is acceptable for most of the people?
NORTHAM: The government is making the changes slowly. It wants to open some 350 cinemas by 2030. In the meantime, it plans to provide more funding for things like studios and film schools. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Jeddah.
(SOUNDBITE OF SYRIANA'S "BLACK ZIL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.