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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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge