Is Saudi Arabia whitewashing female emancipation through its film festival?

By Abir Sorour

Posted on Friday, 21 January 2022 20:28
Riyadh International Book Fair
A Saudi woman looks at books on display during the Riyadh International Book Fair in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, October 2, 2021. REUTERS/Ahmed Yosri

The kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been keeping busy under its crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. He has virtually become one of the most powerful leaders of the Arab world, especially in the fight for influence in East Africa against its former foe Qatar. Is it any wonder that Riyadh is now making a foray into the arts to also highlight a more tolerant and open country?

While Saudi Arabia has been trying to open up to the world through its recent tourism blitz, it has still not converted many believers to its commitment to human rights abuses and emancipation of women.

In an effort to boost its creditability, it determined to act as a destination for funding and support of filmmakers and artists across Africa.

Should films change the world’s perspective of a people? Or should a film change how people present themselves? That’s the question that immediately cropped up after the Saudi screening, at its Red Sea Film Festival of Becoming.

READ MORE Inside the rise of Mohammed bin Salman 

Becoming, a series of five short films, is a project by a group of female Saudi filmmakers, Hind Alfahhad, Jowaher Alamri, Noor Alameer, Sara Mesfer, and Fatima al- Banawi. Together, they try to give the women in their stories power of control through their own narration.

The Kingdom as a beacon of freedom of speech?

Having been promoted and produced by the Red Sea Film Festival, Becoming is one of the projects that the Saudi-owned Ministry of Entertainment has sponsored. It can be argued to be a cultural product to whitewash Saudi Arabia’s violations against women, political activists, human rights defenders, as well as the LGBT community.

According to Amnesty International, “among those harassed in Saudi Arabia, arbitrarily detained, prosecuted and/or jailed were government critics, women’s rights activists, human rights defenders, relatives of activists, journalists, members of the Shi’a minority and online critics of government responses to the Covid-19 pandemic.”

In a country where all known human rights defenders inside its borders have been either detained or imprisoned, efforts were made to launch an international film festival back in 2019. Its first edition was held in 2021.

The festival is the bridge between capital and art that the Kingdom is trying to blend together to change its image of an emancipated woman only interested in fashion and consumerism to one that can also contribute to the arts. The festival also has established new programming features and film markets to fund and support projects by filmmakers from all over the world, as part of its “seeking to empower cinematic talents, preparing them to launch and succeed in the world of cinema.”

In Becoming, women take charge of their own stories

We often hear phrases like “The Tunisian film about sexual abuse”, “The Somali story of famine”, “The Kurdish film highlights female militancy”, “The Syrian film about female sexuality.” In the case of Becoming, we risk labelling it as “that film on women’s rights” rather than delving deeper into the storytelling methods and techniques that influenced each director.

The film tells five stories of different women from various classes, educational and societal backgrounds:

  • The shamed mother in a middle-class wedding;
  • The unhappy working-class wife whose husband is rarely home;
  • The privileged career-oriented mother in a posh neighbourhood in Riyadh;
  • The sophisticated pharmacist whose desperation to have a child pushes her to seek a traditional herbal
  • treatment from a Bedouin woman, who herself is suffering after having lost her daughter;
  • And an awkward, shy teenager who got her first menstruation.

All women are in charge of their fate.

The theme of patriarchy is woven throughout the film, but more so due to its existence in society rather than state-imposed policies. Nevertheless, whether victims or victorious, the female characters take charge of the plot, similar to what the five directors are doing in the Saudi filmmaking scene.

Having said that, the filmmakers deconstruct different taboos and humanise the insecurities that the various characters face. The film achieves this simply by treating each taboo as an issue applicable to all women; not just those specifically to Saudi Arabia or elsewhere in the Middle East.

An example can be found in the fifth film: a female teenager feels awkward and panics due to her first menstrual cycle, not because she happens to live in Saudi Arabia, but because she is a female adolescent who has difficulty talking with her mother about intimate issues.

The film and its unique access to intimate stories should not be seen to as the camera’s look into the hidden lives of these women where their faces and bodies are hidden from the outside world. But rather the camera’s struggle to tell the stories of these women, regardless of if they are of the ‘exotic east’ or the west, because these stories resound across borders.

New destination, new image?

Despite efforts to provide a cleaner version of its image through the festival, many may look the other way as the Kingdom can offer much needed monetary support. In particular, African filmmakers and storytellers searching for foreign entities to fund their projects amid a lack of state support, the Saudi Arabian Red Sea Film Festival will indeed be a destination for many.

It is expected the festival will support and fund films about Africa and the challenges that the continent is facing, from political oppression to persecution of women and the LGBTQ+ community.

For example, a $30,000 award was granted to the Tunisian film Contra in post-production. The film, directed by director Lotfy Nathan, centres on resistance as it follows the story of Ali, a young Tunisian who dreams of a better life over making his precarious life selling contraband gas at the local black market. The film is set after the anti-government protests which initiated the Arab Spring.

The Kingdom itself has tried to quell the Arab Spring within its borders since the first day it erupted in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. Riyadh continues to support counter-revolution movements in these countries by intervening politically or militarily.

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