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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Property programmes are torture for millennials - so why do we keep watching?

Once aspirational, property TV shows now carry a whiff of sadism. 

I watch property programmes because I like inflicting pain on myself.

That’s the only conclusion I, as a millennial, can come to. I must be a masochist, because I enjoy seeing people with more money than I’ll ever have buying homes I’ll never be able to afford.

There was a time when, for me at least, watching property shows was an act of dissent. In the mid 2000s, catching Homes Under the Hammer during its 10am timeslot as a teenager was the ultimate sign of rebellion, because you should, by rights, be in school. Ditto with Location Location Location, Escape to the Country or any of the litany of property programmes which have been going strong since the turn of the century.

Now, though, I realise that these property shows are not simply designed for adolescents pulling sickies. In fact, I’m not the prime target audience for these shows at all. The people who actually appear on these shows are whiter than white, comfortably middle-class and able to splash the cash from years of good jobs. They couldn’t be further away from a working class, white-passing millennial in an age defined by the mortgage crisis and subsequent financial crash.  

It wasn't always this way. When Location, Location, Location began in 2000, 20 per cent of young people and 80 per cent of middle-aged people owned their own home. Rewind a decade, to 1991, and just north of 35 per cent of 16-24 year olds owned their own home. By 2013-2014, that figure had fallen to under 10 per cent. On average, house prices have risen 7 per cent each year since 1980. Job security is hugely decreased. The average deposit needed to buy a property in London, where jobs are most plentiful, has risen by £76,000 in the last decade. 

In short, in 2017, watching a property programme as a millennial is simply a reminder that the ladders have all been pulled up. 

To add insult to injury, political attempts to help young renters, like that of Ed Miliband's 2015 manifesto, face a backlash from Britain's well-organised and vocal landlord class. It's a small comfort that both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn have proposed reforms, since this parliament looks likely to be dominated by Brexit. On the plus side, as far as sofa bums are concerned, appalling renting conditions has spawned a new genre of gritty reality TV typified by When the Landlords Moved In. 

So why do I keep watching programmes about people I do not resemble buying houses I cannot afford? Simply because property programmes make undeniably good viewing. Teenagers argue on Twitter about which of them would be the better replacement for Grand Designs’ iconic presenter Kevin McCloud. One friend I spoke to about the show called it "daydream material".

"It's really satisfying to watch", she said. "There's something about seeing people be able to build their dream houses that's interesting. I like thinking about what my house would look like." Another said that "it's a nosiness thing combined with seeing how the other half live". Another friend I spoke to, a couple of years younger than me, couldn’t describe the allure specifically, simply saying “I just like houses”. 

Twitter hosts a number of young fans who also like houses:

Why indeed, Ally. Why indeed.

Other millennial users are brokenhearted that Kirstie and Phil, the pair who host Location Location Location, are not, in fact, a real couple:

There’s something else here though, aside from on-screen sexual tension. It goes back to that idea of "daydream material". It’s an image of what could be – of what should be. You can’t help but be excited for the homeowners featured on the programme, especially if they’re buying their first home or expanding to a home for life. It’s an infectious feeling of what we’d like to have. It’s hope.

Granted, it might be futile. Despite Brexit, a shortgage of homes means house prices don't look set to plummet any time soon. And millennials don't seem likely to afford them - figures released yesterday make clear that though employment has gone up, wages remain stagnant.

There doesn't appear to be any real way out, except for a permanent sojourn in the letting market. As a result, property TV is actually perfect "reality" TV. Like living in the Big Brother house, or finding "love" on an island, or winning £1,000,000 through being a nerd, property TV has ascended from its roots as programming designed to inform and entertain, to the realm of unantainable, glossy wish-fulfilment, as removed from real life as that Total Wipeout assault course.

And yet, the hope lives on. It might not be yet – it might not even be soon - but Phil and Kirstie, when you come for me, I’ll be ready.