2013 will be remembered as a seminal year in the history of Saudi filmmaking. Haifaa Al Mansour’s “Wadjda” – the first feature length film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and directed by a Saudi woman – has received critical acclaim and has even generated Oscar buzz as a possible nominee for best foreign language film. Interestingly, Saudi Arabia officially submitted the film for the category, the first time the kingdom has ever submitted a film for Academy Award consideration.
As both a Saudi who analyses political, social and economic developments in the kingdom for a living and as someone who has great appreciation for the art of filmmaking – I even briefly considered attending film school many years ago – , watching Wadjda was a must.
Ms. Mansour does a commendable job of creating a very moving portrait of the lives of two women and their daily struggles. And while the film ends on a positive note, suggesting a future in which Saudi women will be free from some of the current restrictions many argue are hampering their self-realization, Ms. Mansour’s portrayal of life in Saudi Arabia is not a very positive one.
Her film touches on a number of social issues which Saudis are intimately familiar with, including the hardship that gender segregation and the inability to drive imposes on women as well as the illegal status of some expatriates that leaves them living in constant fear. Ms. Mansour touches on even more controversial issues such as what some consider to be educational curriculum’s heavy reliance on teaching religion and the rote learning methods still employed and even polygamy. And while many of these topics are the subjects of intense debate among Saudis, focusing almost exclusively on them is bound to leave those who are unfamiliar with Saudi Arabia with a rather bleak picture (no pun intended).
While the film is still certainly worth seeing, it should be viewed as representing a snapshot capturing a relatively brief moment in time in the lives of two fictitious characters. In fairness to Ms. Mansour, the film is a meant to be a drama and does not claim to be a documentary. To the best of my knowledge, Ms. Mansour has not reprised Francis Ford Coppola’s famous line about his haunting, classic film “Apocalypse Now”, when he said that the film “it is not about Vietnam; it is Vietnam.”
This is where the BBC comes in. It’s famed documentary division produced two, one-hour long documentaries, titled “Inside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” which in tandem provide a sweeping examination of the country, as well as tremendous insights into Saudi politics, society and culture.
One, produced in 2012 features long-time BBC security correspondent, Frank Gardner, as he returns to Saudi Arabia for the first time since he was nearly killed outside Riyadh in 2004 by Islamist militants. The documentary seamlessly weaves its way between Gardner’s own personal quest to overcome his trauma and a more formulaic but extremely well produced journey across Saudi Arabia, which features revealing footage as well as interviews with a number of notable Saudis who represent a wide swath of Saudi society and also highlight its diversity.
Among others, Gardner interviews : Thuraya Al Obaid; one of the 30 female members appointed to the Saudi consultative Shura Council earlier this year; Walid Abu Alkair and his wife Samar Badawi, a married couple whose personal travails over the past couple of years have come to symbolize the struggles of both women’s rights activists and human rights activists more broadly; Ahmed Al Omran, a popular young blogger whose social media savvy captures the essence of a new generation of Saudis eager for their voices to be heard and using new media –effectively I might add – to do so; comedian Fahad Al Butairi, whose YouTube based sketch comedy show has garnered millions of views over the past few months alone and whose brand of social satire is indicative of the changing political culture of Saudi Arabia; Walid Sulais, an activist from the oasis of Qatif in the Eastern Province who expresses his deep concerns about what he perceives as the systemic and systematic discrimination against Saudi Shia; and Prince Abdul Aziz Bin Salman, the deputy minister of oil who speaks candidly about some of the challenges facing Saudi Arabia going forward.
The second hour long documentary centers on another prince, Saud Bin Abdul Muhsin , the governor of Hail. The producers follow him on his daily routine and rituals which provides a rare glimpse into the life of a Saudi prince. Not only does the prince speak with remarkable candor about a wide array of issues , including the perennial debate over “modernization vs. westernization,” he also presents a persona that is bound to dramatically alter the image that many people have when they think of Saudi royalty.
Speaking in fluent English, Prince Abdul Muhsin comes across as not only media savvy but also politically astute, as he acknowledges the myriad challenges that hamper the development of Saudi Arabia and directly addresses some of the criticism that is often leveled against Saudi Arabia in the West and elsewhere. In one scene, he is even seen playing ping pong and doing abdominal crunches!
The documentary also stresses the relatively conservative nature of the region of Hail and interviews local advocates of social reform, as well as those who are resisting it. Just as importantly, the documentary shines a spotlight on an important aspect of the psyche of many Saudis which manifests itself on a daily basis: The patriarchal ethos on which the Saudi state was founded prevails to this day. Senior princes, regional governors and by extension King Abdullah himself, are still seen by some Saudis as benefactors who have a moral obligation to assist average citizens in their hour of need.
As someone who writes for a living, I still think there is no substitute for reading some of the many great books that have been written about Saudi Arabia. Robert Lacey’s masterful “The Kingdom: Arabia and the House of Saud” should be required reading by anyone interested in Saudi Arabia. That’s of course in addition to visiting, and preferably living in Saudi, for an extended period of time. However, for those whose time is limited and who do not have plans to visit Saudi Arabia anytime soon, these two BBC documentaries do a remarkable job of covering many important aspects of life in Saudi Arabia. They will no doubt prove to be eye opening for many viewers.
And despite its dour tone, “Wadjda” is also worth seeing.
Fahad Nazer is a political analyst with JTG, Inc and a former political analyst at the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, DC. His writing has appeared in CNN, the International Herald Tribune, Yaleglobal online and Al-Monitor, among others, and was recently featured on the web site of the Council on Foreign Relations. His Twitter handle is @fanazer.