The image-less kingdom

Film is helping to demystify Saudi Arabia.

“Art raises its head where creeds relax”
Friedrich Nietzsche

When respectability is granted retrospectively to the most obscure filmmakers and academia canonises the wildest forms of iconoclastic experimentation eyes turn eastward in search of clandestine aesthetics. There the spectator can still witness – though from a safe distance – the thrill of illicit movie-making and hear stories of outlawed directors smuggling films to major festivals hidden in cakes. Critical forms of artistic expression in the west meanwhile are confined to a space where, in the words of Felix Guattari “a semi-tolerated, semi-encouraged, and co-opted protest is an intrinsic part of the system”. Art (cinema) seems to act as a sort of safety valve through which feelings of anger, dissent and subversion are vented, and deflected from their original targets.

When dissent is handed out by institutions free of charge, it is natural for questioning western audiences to brace themselves in trepidation at the uncertain fate of Chinese artists persecuted by their obtuse regime or Iranian directors suffering at the hands of an uninspired clergy. Though genuine and heartfelt our concern may be, it does follow a disturbingly clear pattern that shadows the trail of (black) gold. Take for instance the case of Saudi Arabia – possibly the only country in the world that bans cinema from being made and exhibited. This year two major events took place in the secretive Gulf state: the first film ever to be entirely shot and produced in Saudi Arabia, Wadjda by female Saudi director Haifa Al Mansour, premiered in Venice and was later shown in London. The other extraordinary event that took place in the Wahhabi monarchy was the recent secret public screening (oxymorons are perhaps a necessity in a country that considers cinema sinful, the first in 30 years.

For a film community that closely monitors every move of the Iranian authorities, the mild and non-confrontational reaction to these events is striking. The Hollywood Reporter described Wadjda as “the very best face of a Middle East interested in change and an equitable future for women”. But it completely failed to mention that the condition of women in Saudi Arabia is amongst the most inhumane on earth; they are forbidden to drive let alone shoot a film. Not a mention either of the fact that Saudi Arabia, despite its atrocious track record on human rights, remains a very close ally of the west. Saudi authorities (read: a single family) are hardly mentioned, let alone criticized by film commentators and journalists on our free media.

Suddenly the focus shifts from the restrictive conditions under which the film was shot (a subject of outraged indignation in the case of Jafar Panahi’s This is Not a Film, for instance) to the defiant poetics of a film that confronts a nondescript authority.

Given the total lack of historical and social contextualisation in the reception of these epochal events in the Kingdom (at least in cinematic terms), we decided to briefly investigate its censored film history. “Cinema in Saudi Arabia was banned in the 80s,” we were told by Ahd, a Saudi director and actress who appeared in Wadjda (in the role of Ms Hussa), “coinciding with a very strict religious turn – Alsahwa ('the awakening')”. “It all started in 1980,” continues Ahd, “with the siege of the Grand Mosque. I wasn’t around in the Seventies but from what I heard from my parents, arts were thriving back then”. As to why exactly films were banned Ahd admits that “like many laws in Saudi Arabia, they lack a logical explanation”.  Another source from the region, who preferred to remain anonymous, clarified that “in their immense bigotry they [Saudi authorities] think that cinema is some sort of sinful activity, while sexual segregation and corporal punishment are perfectly normal".

Eshan Khoshbakht, an Iranian film historian, adds that “Sunnis are very tough on the arts since they consider any reproduction of the human body, male or female, as a capital sin ('trying to imitate God!') and Haram”.

“Like everybody else, not only amongst western audiences, I was amazed and pleased to finally see something coming out of that ultra-restrictive country,” Khoshbakht enthuses. “[Wadjda] is an honest, real, simple and beautifully acted film,” he concludes. So what is the significance of this film for a country like Saudi Arabia? Variety film critic Jay Weissberg, who specialises in films of the Arab world, observes how “outside of Saudi Arabia, the film’s prominence in festivals like Venice and London means that the Kingdom is finally being demystified.” “Even in the most repressive countries, there’s always some kind of underground, some kind of meeting ground for like-minded people, yet too often those outside these nations tend to consider them monolithic entities,” he adds. Saudi Arabia in fact boasts a teeming blockbuster subculture in the form of pirated DVDs, illegal satellite TV channels and the like. The internet has brought change and wider access to culture, albeit in the form of Hollywood blockbusters. Ahd points out that “here everyone owns a TV and its content is probably far worse that what could be screened in a cinema”. So despite the rather severe ban there seems to be a potential audience; that at least is what according to Ahd this new film and the secret public screening have demonstrated. “I hope that is the beginning of a change in the status of cinema in Saudi Arabia,” she says.

That such an inspiring moment in the history of artistic expression is struggling to make the headlines in the same (film) publications that hail and fetishise dissident filmmakers from Iran and China is rather puzzling.

Could this have anything to do with the country’s political status as a trusted friend of western democracies? Despite having executed 76 people in 2011, having crushed peaceful protests in Bahrain (with the invaluable support of the oldest parliamentary democracy in the world), Saudi Arabia is off the black list. The director of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde expressed her appreciation of the kingdom’s “important role” in supporting the global economy. British Prime Minister David Cameron recently visited the Kingdom on a business trip selling weapons and jet fighters.

“As for why Saudi Arabia’s restrictions aren’t reported as often as those in other countries like Iran, the answer is obvious. Saudi is a Western ally and both sides have a vested interest in protecting the other’s image,” Weissberg remarks.

 “What I found problematic in Wadjda was how western art (cinema included) is framed as the only possible source of freedom,” says Khoshbakht, “the absence of an alternative narrative – or, to use a musical term, of a counterpoint to the idea that freedom, joy and a better life can only come from the west.” Given this, the lack of interest in the west in Saudi cinema could prove beneficial.  Instead of aping or trying to please western audiences, Saudi filmmakers have a chance to develop an authentically independent voice, defying both local bigotry and the double-standards of western liberalism.

Haifaa Al Mansour, director of "Wadjda" (Photograph: Getty Images)
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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis