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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How the death of a militant in Kashmir went viral

Burhan Wani was a 22-year-old Hizb al-Mujahedin commander. In life, he resuscitated the flagging insurgency. Now, his death has put it on a firm road to revival.

His photographs began to circulate on Facebook last year. In one, he leans against a cedar tree in a forest in southern Kashmir, a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder. In another, he stands before lush green mountains under a cloudless sky.

But the picture that created the myth of Burhan Wani, the 22-year-old Hizb al-Mujahedin commander, was a group shot with ten armed associates standing around him. They faced the camera calmly, a hint of a smile tugging at their lips. The photograph went viral, not only in Kashmir but also across India and Pakistan.

On 8 July, when Wani and two other rebels were shot dead in a joint operation by the police and paramilitary forces, thousands of people across southern Kashmir took to the streets to mourn and protest. The mosques reverberated with slogans of freedom – a throwback to the late 1980s, when armed struggle against Indian rule broke out in the region. The protesters lobbed stones. The police fired back.

The following morning, news of protesters’ deaths started to emerge. The injured, numbering in their hundreds, began to reach the hospitals in Srinagar. Many had been hit in the eyes with pellets from pump-action guns, non-lethal weapons used for crowd control in Kashmir since 2010.

The eye doctors at Sri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital said that more than a hundred people had been partially or completely blinded. Among them was a 14-year-old schoolgirl, Insha Malik, who lost the vision in both eyes. A picture of her pellet-riddled face has become the symbol of the ongoing mayhem.

The fury soon spread across Kashmir. Mosque loudspeakers boomed with slogans and songs calling for resistance against India. Apart from the government-owned broadband service, internet and mobile-phone networks were shut down. Yet this made little difference. Roughly sixty people – many of them teenagers – have lost their lives. According to figures presented to parliament by the Indian home minister on 11 August, 4,515 security personnel and 3,356 civilians have been injured in the protests.

What made Burhan Wani important enough to warrant such widespread mourning and anger? The answer is tacitly understood in Kashmir but little articulated. In his six years as a rebel, Wani revived anti-India militancy from near-extinction. His strategy was primarily tech-driven – according to police in Kashmir, he hadn’t fired a single shot.

The image of a handsome young man in battle fatigues against a pastoral backdrop, calling for a new attempt at jihad against India, held a powerful appeal for a young generation in Kashmir. These are the people who are enduring the fallout of more than two decades of separatist insurgency, and they are bitter about New Delhi’s oppressive hold over their homeland. With his fresh, viral image, Wani separated his movement from Kashmir’s history and bestowed a new moral glamour on their actions.

He was soon joined by scores of recruits. In 2015, for the first time in a decade, local militants outnumbered outsiders. This year, out of 145 active rebels, 91 are from Indian-administered Kashmir and most of the rest are from Pakistan or Pakistan-administered Kashmir (though this is still a far cry from the early 1990s, when thousands of militants, both local and from elsewhere, roamed the valley). The recruits – many of them home-grown, Wani-inspired youths – are replenishing the ranks as others are killed.

As the ongoing turmoil shows, Wani long ago transcended his modest militant credentials. He has become an emblem of Kashmir’s deepening alienation from India and a role model for young people for whom guns seem to be the only route to a better future.

In life, he resuscitated the flagging insurgency. Now, his death has put it on a firm road to revival. Unlike during the mass uprisings of 2008 and 2010, Kashmir today is drifting back to active militancy, with the myths about Wani enlivening the separatist narrative.

“You will kill one Burhan; thousands of Burhans will be born”, one slogan goes. “Burhan, your blood will bring revolution”, promises another. The millennial generation has little memory of the horrors of the 1990s, of the innumerable killings and disappearances. An estimated 60,000 people have been killed in the armed rebellion against New Delhi, in part aided by Pakistan (which claims Kashmir as part of its territory, in a dispute that stretches back to the 1947 partition of India). Human rights groups put the number of enforced disappearances in the present conflict at 8,000.

Contributing to this mood are India’s rightward turn under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the perception that New Delhi wants to forcibly change the demographics in Kashmir. This fear has been reinforced by recent government measures to set up colonies to be settled by Indian soldiers and Kashmiri Pandits – the latter from a small Hindu community that was forced to flee the region during the separatist violence.

At Wani’s funeral on 9 July, all eyes were on a group of masked rebels in the front row. They fired their guns in salute to their fallen chief. When prayers ended, the mourners strained to catch a glimpse of Wani’s comrades. Those who were close enough kissed them on the forehead before they escaped.

More than a month later, the anger on the streets shows no sign of abating. Protests take place daily across Kashmir. Businesses are shut down for most of the day, opening only briefly late in the evening and early in the morning. Internet access is restricted, except through the state-owned broadband. With each week of disturbances, the numbers of deaths and injuries continue to mount.

Meanwhile, a new video has appeared on Facebook and YouTube. This time, it comes from Sabzar Ahmad Bhat, Wani’s successor. Again, it shows a commander and his associates in battle fatigues, in a forest in southern Kashmir. Bhat waves to the camera as the others remain engrossed by their phones. It, too, has gone viral. 

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge