Saudi Arabia's ban on cinemas hasn't stopped the Saudi Film Festival from pushing its cultural agenda forward. It launched for its fourth season on Monday.
"Welcome to all of you, filmmakers, makers of art and makers of hope," festival director Ahmed al-Mulla said at the opening ceremony, according to AFP.
Launched in 2008 for the first time, the festival wasn't held again for seven years, until it relaunched in 2015. This is now the third year in a row that the event has moved forward.
"Taking pictures on the red carpet before the ceremony."
Including 58 homegrown cinematic works, the festival will run through March 28 in the coastal city of Dhahran.
Filmmakers have submitted their works to four different categories: feature films, documentaries, student productions and un-produced scripts.
While cinemas remain banned in Saudi Arabia, the festival moves forward as the kingdom has made a significant shift toward promoting more entertainment options.
The kingdom is keen on increasing entertainment options
Enhancing the kingdom's entertainment opportunities is a major part of the ambitious Vision 2030 plan championed by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. And Saudis have been seeing the results.
For the first time in years, major concerts have opened in Riyadh and Jeddah. The kingdom hosted its first-ever Comic-Con in February. Earlier this month, the kingdom also held its first-ever YouTube FanFest. And last year, the U.S. theme park company Six Flags announced that it would be opening in the kingdom in the near future.
"It’s nice to see all kinds of events here and people coming from outside," Mulla said.
Even the ban on cinemas may disappear soon. In January, Amr al-Madani, head of the government's General Authority for Entertainment, said cinemas would open in the kingdom as soon as this year.
But all of this rapid expansion of entertainment options hasn't come without some backlash. Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al al-Sheikh said: "I hope those in charge of the Entertainment Authority are guided to turn it from bad to good and not to open doors to evil," in January.
"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," he said.
Saudi filmmakers haven't been deterred
Saudi filmmakers have already been making headlines for their submissions at top international festivals.
The romantic comedy Barakah Meets Barakah by Mahmoud Sabbagh debuted at the Berlin International Film Festival last year to sold-out crowds, and won the event's Ecumenical Jury Prize. It became the second film the kingdom ever submitted to the Academy Awards.
In 2014, Haifaa Al Mansour's Wadjda became the kingdom's first-ever submission to the Academy Awards. It was also hailed as the first-ever feature film by a Saudi woman.
Online, Saudi social media stars and aspiring filmmakers have found a whole new avenue of showcasing their creativity as well.
"For the first time, we have this leader [Prince Mohammed bin Salman] who is 30 years old, who speaks my tone and my language, and we are very optimistic about it. and we want to be part of the change," Sabbagh, told StepFeed at a premiere of his film in Dubai.
And many millennials in the kingdom definitely share Sabbagh's sentiments.