Women Filmmakers Struggle to Film Women’s Struggle

By Ines Santos

Women of the Holy Kingdom

Directed by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy

Discovery Times, 2005, 50 minutes

Saudi Solutions

Directed by Bregtje van der Haak

First Run/Icarus Films, 2006, 77 minutes

In a quest to unveil the issue of women’s liberation in Saudi Arabia, two female filmmakers, one from Pakistan and the other from the Netherlands, enter the conservatively Muslim country with the same goal: to document the changes and reforms in women’s rights and to question the extent of real achievement.

Considering Saudi Arabia’s closed society, why did the government permit these filmmakers to film documentaries about women – documentaries intended for Western viewing? The Saudi government may have been hoping for some positive public relations. However, as one watches the films, restrictions on where the filmmakers could gain access, whom they could interview and many of the interviewees’ careful responses, remind viewers of the heavy-handed role of the restrictive government, undermining hope for a revised opinion of the status of women in Saudi society.

Both “Women of the Holy Kingdom” and “Saudi Solutions” leave the viewer with the impression that the end product is not quite what each director originally envisioned, but rather the film that was possible under such arduous circumstances. The religious police frequently interrupt the directors, along with their female crews and translators, and the filmmakers are surprised when the majority of women refuse to be interviewed or even appear on camera.

“Women of the Holy Kingdom,” by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, herself from the Muslim country of Pakistan, is as much a personal account of the filmmaker’s frustration during her five-week journey as it is a look at women’s role in Saudi society. The film attempts to cover, or in many cases uncover, an array of issues, but ultimately ends with its goals unfulfilled.

At first, Obaid-Chinoy succeeds at bringing the audience closer to the experience by describing her personal struggles in the country. She helps us imagine how hard it would be for any of us, as it was for her, to suddenly be forbidden to enter a restaurant, drive a car or check into a hotel simply because she is a woman. It doesn’t take long, though, until her outspoken opinions on the subject cause clashes with her interviewees. The director’s challenging attitude is off-putting to some of her subjects and, soon enough, to her viewers. It seems as if Obaid-Chinoy is dismissing the need for a slow, gradual process of reform, and she is both surprised and dismayed that Saudi women’s mentalities are not similar to those of Western societies.

“Women of the Holy Kingdom” suffers from trying to cover too many facets of women’s lives without a connecting thread – it seems sudden, for instance, when the film jumps from a short discussion on divorce to media coverage of female issues, and that lack of transition eventually becomes tiring.

“Saudi Solutions” has a much clearer goal and path: van der Haak chooses to focus mainly on the question of female employment, and builds the documentary around this theme. Who is employing women, and why? What kind of women choose to work? What challenges do these women face, and how do they overcome them? Like Obinaid, she faces the unwillingness of most working women to be interviewed or filmed on camera, and she has to resort to interviewing her government-appointed female guide, the only female journalist in Riyadh. Her guide proves to be an excellent subject due to her willingness to open her home and life to the cameras (despite continuing to wear the abaya) and her vivacious attitude.

Van der Haak’s main challenge is in portraying Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, who becomes a central figure in the film due to his reformist attitude and the unusual step he has taken of employing a number of women to work in his companies. The filmmaker spends a long time interviewing him and his female employees, but it is up to the viewer to read between the lines of what is being said. While it doesn’t appear that van der Haak sees the Prince’s “kingdom within the Kingdom” as an ideal solution (with beautiful women, hand-picked for their jobs, dressed in Western clothing and catering to the prince), she does spend more time on his enterprises than any other subject. Van der Haak expects her viewers to recognize self-serving propaganda.

Van der Haak is not only looking for change: she is looking for evidence of the forces of change that could provide hope to the country as a whole. For this reason she challenges the prince, questioning why he won’t use his political influence or form a political party that could promote women’s rights, to which he responds, “We don’t need a party because everything I am saying is pro-Islam.” She also challenges other subjects, such as a successful female photographer who is opening her first studio. Van der Haak asks her why she doesn’t take action. “What would happen?” “A lot,” is the ominous reply. Despite the apparent resistance, the whisper of change is evident throughout the film. It is not the scream the director is looking for, but mentalities are changing. And that’s the first step.

In the end, both films succeed in portraying the enormous struggle of women in Saudi Arabia, and in demonstrating how far they have to go to achieve a culturally acceptable form of equality. If nothing else, we learn this through the challenges the filmmakers faced to simply make their films.

This review appears in Al Jadid,Vol. 12, nos. 54/55 (Winter/Spring 2006)

Copyright (c) 2006 by Al Jadid


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