In Saudi, we always found ways to watch new films

Rym Ghazal reflects on her childhood love of movies, even when she lived in a country with no cinemas.

The simple pleasure of seeing a film at a cinema is denied to some. (Delores Johnson / The National )
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There is an old Arabic saying that goes, “Al Mamnou Marghoub”, or the forbidden is desired. Nothing illustrates this better than when­ever my friends and relatives come over from Saudi. One of the first things we always end up doing is camping out at the cinema. They are banned in the kingdom.

Well, there is no tent involved, but everything else is. Everything from a flask of warm tea to blankets, scarves and jackets are packed with the intention of undertaking a marathon viewing of the latest movies at my local and always freezing cinema.

Generally, I don’t like going to the cinema as it is too cold, too loud and you can’t pause the film when you need to go to the washroom. But, by the time my Saudi group and I leave the cinema, we are squinting and cramping up.

“And the less censored it is, the better the experience,” laughs one of my Saudi friends, who used to make fun of the fact that even hugs between fathers and daughters were censored on local TV channels in Saudi Arabia.

I remember a cut-out of a tree showed up in one film on TV when some teenagers were playing football and a woman in a tight dress arrived on the scene. I got a glimpse of her with her 1980s hair before the tree took centre stage.

But it is different now.These days, people have huge TV sets with satellite channels and packages like OSN that show new films.

There is also the internet and its many ways of seeing the latest releases, most unfortunately illegally uploaded, downloaded and reloaded.

But somehow, most of us still long for the cinema experience, with its overpriced and stale popcorn, its fattening nachos and its over-sugared beverages.

With the film festival season upon us, many people fly into Abu Dhabi and Dubai just to get a chance to see something different.

There are some unconfirmed figures that suggest Saudis spend hundred of millions of dollars a year watching movies in Bahrain and Dubai. There are also many talented Saudi filmmakers who end up making it big outside their home country.

I can’t help but fondly remember my childhood in Saudi, when sellers of pirated DVDs would come visiting with a “bag” of surprises.

The phone numbers for the sellers with the “best quality” goods were very tightly guarded and were only exchanged among trusted friends.

When they came around or customers went to them, it was such a dramatic experience, in which we used coded terms such as: “So, you have what I asked for?” The seller would nod and look around before handing over the carefully wrapped-up goods.

Even though we may have had the “fake” DVDs and video cassettes of our favourite cartoons and movies, most of us eventually got the real thing as we wanted to keep them for future use.

Until recently, the sellers of these copied DVDs would show up at buildings here in the UAE, selling the latest hit. But there have been clamp downs on this business here and in the rest of the Arab world.

I once found Resident Evil, my favourite video game, being sold under the counter in a Jeddah shop. I was surprised when I got it home and it worked on my console.

There were ways to unlock these copies to make them run on video game consoles, and as kids we would take it as a challenge to work out how to do it.

For those with access to cinemas, it can be a funny experience to watch a movie via one of those counterfeit DVDs, where one would actually see the film being illegally taped inside a cinema and get to hear the coughs and murmurs of other customers in the cinema.