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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The world has not had enough of Daniel Craig as Bond

The actor's fifth film in the franchise will be a welcome return for his layered and troubled Bond.

It looked like a cut-and-dry case. He was going to be the spy who went out in the cold. The one who didn’t say “never say never again.” Dr No Thanks. But with the announcement this week that Daniel Craig is staying on to have one final stab at the role of James Bond, it’s become a case of Resign Another Day. 

A fifth outing in the part will nudge Craig ahead of Pierce Brosnan (four) and comfortably outstrip Timothy Dalton (two) and George Lazenby (one) while leaving him a couple short of both Sean Connery (seven) and Roger Moore (also seven, though consecutive where Connery’s run was not). But it’s the quality not the quantity that counts and Craig has been consistently intriguing and surprising, whether the films themselves have been (Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace) or not (Skyfall, Spectre). He has also attracted compliments where it counts. Moore, who died earlier this year, referred to Craig as “the Bond.” Are you going to argue with the man who leapt across a row of snapping crocodiles in Live and Let Die, survived the G-force simulator in Moonraker, told a tiger to “Sit!” in Octopussy and went to bed with Grace Jones in A View to a Kill? Thought not.

I’m glad in one way that Craig has chosen not to leave just yet. He has one of the best heads in the industry. I’m not talking about his business acumen - I mean his actual head, a cross between a breeze-block and a bullet, with distinctive jutting ears stuck on the sides for good measure. He looks formidable before he even produces a weapon. What’s more, he casts the most easily-identifiable shadow since Mickey Mouse. His appeal is not just physical though. His is a genuinely layered and troubled Bond, something which the films immediately prior to his own tried to evoke, but which seemed slightly beyond the range of Pierce Brosnan - who, let it be noted, had some tremendous moments of befuddlement in GoldenEye (the one where Judi Dench, as M, gives him that memorable dressing-down in which she calls him a “dinosaur”) and even came close to a Craigian callousness in The World Is Not Enough.

In the end, it was Brosnan who was not enough. Not dangerous, intelligent, damaged enough. Craig has the whole package. If you’ve seen Casino Royale, and you have forgotten the intermingled strains of pain, resentment and vulnerability that he brought to one cruel line near the end of the film (“The bitch is dead”), then I envy you. I can still hear his chilling delivery. 

Any reservations I feel about his return in the next Bond movie, which is scheduled for November 2019, can be traced to an eagerness to see what else he will do once he hangs up his holster and tuxedo. He was a fine actor before Bond (check out Love is the Devil, The Mother and the BBC’s Our Friends in the North for proof) but has not made such a strong impression so far in extra-curricular parts during his tenure as 007. (He will shortly be seen in Steven Soderbergh’s heist movie Logan Lucky.) It will be exciting to witness what he can do once he is a free agent - or rather, not an agent any more at all.

It would have been nice and neat for Craig to have bowed out with Spectre. It wasn’t an impressive piece of filmmaking by any stretch of the imagination but it dropped so many hints about its hero’s demise that it felt like a natural swansong. Bond is first seen in Spectre  wearing a skull mask during Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico City. In scenes later on in London, he learns that plans are afoot to sack him. Switching on a radio, he is greeted by “New York, New York”, the lyrics of which have P45 stamped all over them: “Start spreading the news/I’m leaving today.” His off-screen antipathy in interviews towards the idea of being bound to Bond only fuelled the rumour that it was curtains for him.

But though he said straight after finishing Spectre that if he played Bond again it would only be for the dough, no one should doubt his commitment. “I get paid a lot of money to do something I love to do,” he said in 2011, when Skyfall was still in the planning stages. “And whatever it is—the way I was brought up, or whatever—I feel if you’re getting paid you should put the work in. Maybe I’m stupid and everyone’s looking at me and saying: ‘Chill out, take the money and run.’ I can’t do that. I feel the more we put into it, the more we’ll get out. How best can we spend all this money? You don’t just take it and go, ‘Yay! See ya!’ I want millions of people to watch the movie. So why not make it good?”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.