Understanding the Saudi society requires a lot of patience and research. The society is weaved with intricate patterns of religion, culture, rules and a desire to break free. On the last day of this year’s Dubai Film Festival, I watched the documentary “The Poetess”.
It is an international co-production. The story and characters are Saudi. However, the two film directors were German, so was the funding. The film had German and UAE production as well.
The documentary talks about Hissa Hilal, a middle-class Saudi woman from Riyadh. Throughout the documentary, Hissa appears dressed in Burqa, and expresses her love for her heritage and poetry. She got famous when she became the first woman to win third place in “Million’s Poet”.
The story is simple. Hissa cues up each of her poems. Filling in backstory and personal philosophy as the audience can watch her progress in the competition.
This goes on until she reaches the third round of the competition. Here, she chooses a poem, which she calls “The Chaos of Fatwas”, presented in rhymed dactyls.
This poem is about the ‘barbaric clerics’, or religious police, that controlled Saudi Arabia. She condemns their actions that have spread fear in the society, evoking images of suicide bombers and the suppression of rights.
A deeper look into Saudi society
So far, so good. If it had not been for one journalist who decided to write about this particular poem, releasing turmoil in the media. Hissa was accused of being an enemy of Islam. She received online death threats, and became a heroine of foreign media overnight.
The story here is a junction of the country’s problems: backwardness, corruption and many other problems caused by the power of false religion.
She takes the audience back and forth through the history of Saudi society. After describing economic and social developments that accompanied oil discovery, she explains that Saudi Arabia was like its Gulf neighbors. It was developing and blooming, until 1979 – the turning point in the history of Saudi Arabia. This was the year of the Makkah Siege, when Juhemain Al Otaibi, a self-proclaimed defender of true Islam, and his troops besieged the Holy Mosque in Makkah. Their demands was to dethrone Al Saud, the country rulers.
Muslim clerics decided that it was an attack on Islam. The solution they offered, as described by Hissa was to prevent similar attacks in the future. “The deal was of control over Saudi society”.
Amr Al Qahtani, co-producer of the movie, told me that the movie aimed at showing the development of Saudi society, or better perhaps, the lack of development. The Makkah deal and its aftermath show the start of religious control in Saudi Arabia, and the life that went backward under this type of rule.
The Poetess is only the second film about Saudi society and the influence of the extremists with such international cooperation. Wajda was the first. Released in 2012, it was submitted by the Saudi government to the Oscars. Directed by Saudi director Haifa Mansour, Wajda also had German financial backing.
Al Qahtani said that making The Poetess and Wajda were miracles. The hurdles imposed by the Saudi government were huge due to the topics. Permission for The Poetess was given because Al Qahtani said that he was making a documentary about the Ministry of Culture and Information. It ran at the Locarno Film Festival, at Cannes, and it will run in the Berlinale. This documentary is for the outside world, said Al Qahtani, to understand who we are. He has little hope that it will run in Saudi cinemas, once they are opened.
To me, the main point of this movie is that the rights that have been given to us Saudis, especially the women, are not a gift. They are our given rights and were taken from us under the guise of deceiving arguments in the name of religion. With the intention for power and control. In his speech on Saudi society, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) did not say that these rights would be given but restored. This is only right because anything else would have stirred resentment among Saudis.
Today, the world is celebrating these changes, but to us Saudis, it is the least we can get. There are still many rights that we need to get back, most importantly our dignity. The road is still long to get where we deserve to be.