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“I’ll Take You to the Police”: Film Schools, Guerrilla Filmmaking and the New “Saudi Cinema”

The Great Muse (Photo by Sara Alsubaie)

“End the trip? I’ll take you to the police.” The driver, Saudi, early 20s, looked into the rear view mirror at me and the woman next to me in the back seat. I had asked him, “You always ask your riders their nationality?” Finally, he responded, “You’re in an Islamic state, and you must respect the laws of this country!” 

Having lived in Sudan and Libya and grown up in largely conservative Chad just a couple countries over, I was not new to “Islamic states.” Despite Saudi Arabia’s massive economic and cultural overhaul in recent years, the legal system still prohibits “gender mixing” between unmarried people. Our Uber ride had begun just minutes ago: We left a mall food court and were looking on her phone at pictures from a trip abroad when the driver started shouting back at us. Using an Arabic word with a condescending tone, he told the woman to “Move away!” He then asked repeatedly what my nationality was, a question I receive everyday, albeit generally under more pleasant circumstances.

He pulled over to a police car; the woman got out of the car and disappeared into a nearby shop. I was detained and questioned and refused to give her name while being asked repeatedly if she was Saudi. I was even asked if I was hiding my Saudi nationality ID card at home (I don’t have one). And so began the end of my career teaching filmmaking—and making films—in Saudi Arabia. 

I arrived in Jeddah two and a half years earlier to begin teaching in a filmmaking program at, of all places, a women’s university. To many, the idea of a film program for female students was a progressive move in a hardline environment. Our filmmaking department was named “digital production” so as not to attract unwanted attention from a societal contingent opposed to anything called “filmmaking” in a country that banned cinema. In most of the kingdom’s other female schools, men could teach only by video conference or, traditionally, from behind a curtain. But in our case, male faculty and female students met in the same place. The campus was completely boxed in, its buildings situated like Tetris pieces within a rectangular space walled off from the public. It followed its own dress code: “If there is a male in the area, wear your abaya.” Occasionally, an email would communicate that someone was filming on campus: “There is a shooting on campus. Please be aware of your surroundings and cover!” (What they meant was “Someone’s got a camera. Be on the lookout for them and make sure to cover your hair.”) 

The students in the filmmaking program were enrolled across a curriculum of screenwriting, video production, animation and interactive media designed under the auspices of the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. On my first day of classes, balancing books and a laptop as a makeshift tray for my espresso, I made my way through a campus busy with students catching up about where they traveled for the break or the latest show they’ve streamed (words cannot do justice to the number of hours spent discussing Game of Thrones and RuPaul’s Drag Race). Their own scripts navigated the space between fantasy and reality: In one of my classes, a student wrote about a society in which all humans grew into animals, while another developed a script for a girl whose hair had cosmic powers. Another, working on her first screenplay, wrote about a woman who finds out her boyfriend of several years had left her to marry someone else his family had chosen.

In Dammam, on the opposite coast of Saudi Arabia, Ahmad Al-Mulla and his team were organizing the Saudi Film Festival and had selected a large number of our student works, including a handful of scripts and a live action film featuring the camerawork of Rawan Namngani that would go on to win a Silver Palm award. Jeddah is known by the phrase Jeddah ghair, meaning “Jeddah is different” (in the vein of “Keep Austin Weird”), but Saudi Arabia’s west coast otherwise maintains a more conservative reputation. The opening night of the festival—a mixed-gender event hosted in a rundown cultural center—I stood in the very back talking to a student. A boy ran back to our section, shouting “Al-Hai’a jaatkum! The religious police are here!” Men separated from women in a dash to different sections of the venue. Within half a minute of the messenger boy’s announcement, bearded men in white thobs and red headdresses, minus the traditional black rope agal as a sign of their piety, showed up: the Hai’a, a shorthand for the “Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice,” a.k.a. the religious police.

Still, in a society in which reputation and outward image is everything, the students and I enjoyed the anonymity of being in a different city. We spent the final night in Dammam in some urban exploration: climbing the rooftop of our hotel in a light rain, making a trip to an ATM at 4 a.m. to pay for a plane ticket, followed by taking a taxi to a fishing pier on the Persian Gulf. As we watched a thunderstorm pass over the island nation of Bahrain, just a few miles out into the sea, a religious police land cruiser approached, followed not too far behind by a police jeep. “What should we do?” “We can tell them one of us is married to Mr. Bentley, and the others are her friends!” “No one would believe that!” “Quick, Bentley, go down to the water!” I made my way to the rocks. The police car made its way down the pier, stopped, questioned a nearby fisher, then circled back in the direction of the mainland.

The month after we returned from the festival, religious police nationwide were stripped of their power to arrest people. In Jeddah, I had never really seen the religious police except for a patrol that circled the exercise walkway I jogged at, waiting to find men and women talking and, more than once, yelling at me, “Go pray, Muslim brother!” as I ran by. For our film students, all women, the religious police were a constant threat to a successful production and had stopped and harassed them on several occasions until a male guardian could come and release them. Even faculty felt limitations. On campus, for example, we were forbidden from using university equipment. Most of us were not Saudi citizens and had heard stories of non-Saudis being deported for even the slightest trouble with the law—filmmaking, which often involved mixed gender cast and crew and dealt with topics whose relationship to the state religion could easily be questioned, was a risk in this regard. More than one professor in other departments on campus had told students that filmmaking was haraam, forbidden.

Abdulrahman Khawj, from the town of Taif in the mountains east of Mecca, had studied film in the United States before returning with the dream of making his first feature. He began teaching alongside me, and we spent afternoons discussing a script to shoot in the summer. It seemed impossible, given that male faculty interaction with students beyond the classroom was frowned upon, but Abdulrahman was able to get university permission to hire students as interns to crew the film. A handful of production companies whose primary work was in advertising contributed in-kind support to what they saw as their first shot at being part of a feature film. Abdulrahman’s family contributed generously to the production. We also went the crowdfunding route, opting for Arabic film–focused site Aflamna; an anonymous donor footed the bill within days of launching. Soon enough, we had a real, breathing feature film on our hands: The Great Muse, about a high school graduate haunted by his dreams as he must choose his college major.

Students would later joke that they learned more on the 45-day shoot of this feature film than they did in all four years of film school (I wonder if this sentiment is shared by students globally). Every single person was working a new role on a feature film—myself included, composing the film’s score—if not their first feature altogether. We made sure from the beginning to have a team dedicated to behind-the-scenes; there was an idea that the battles crew were fighting at home might be more momentous than the film itself. A lead actress pulled out of the film the day before shooting because she could not appear in any scenes without a tarha covering her hair—imagine how illogical it would be for a lead character to appear with her hair covered in her own bedroom. In at least two cases, female crew members were stopped midway through production and forbidden from leaving the house to what their parents saw as work among “the wrong type of people.” Others were told by their families that “we never see you anymore” or “you need to find a real job where you can work with women only.” It was not uncommon for a father to show up to the set. In one case, a father instructed us to “turn on some more lights” as the dark environment was “unsuitable.”

It was unclear whether we could and how we would obtain a permit for the film. Abdulrahman made numerous trips to the ministry office responsible for permits for television. He was told once that his application had been lost (only to be “re-found” in another office hours later). On another trip, a government employee refused to speak with him until Abdulrahman returned wearing a traditional thob. As the first couple weeks of production commenced in private, residential locations, Abdulrahman still made trips to follow up on the public permit.

On the last scene of the last day, we were shooting in residences—in this case, Abdulrahman’s grandmother’s house—when a man showed up with a woman wearing full burqa. My initial reaction was, “Wow, these actors went all-out!” but the man’s face showed dismay at the mixed-gender set of 30-plus cast and crew. He turned out to be a relative coming for a Saturday visit to the grandmother, and he lost it. “This is wrong! Get out! Get out of this house right now!” he yelled as we scrambled to wrap set. I asked if he wanted his rug back where it was. “Leave it! Get out of here!” Rawan, who was DPing, held the gate open for those carrying equipment into the street. “Mr. Bentley, yallah, yallah (let’s go, let’s go)!” We boarded students’ cars, their Indian and Filipino drivers waiting outside, and headed to our base house, only to change halfway out of concerns that it would be too risky and instead headed to a student’s house. It was a microcosm of the contradictions at play in society: While we had permission and support from the house’s owner, the grandmother, one male relative could kick us out. Also, for the first time, a male member of the crew, not a woman, had been shut down.

We spent the next year learning and regrouping, much of it in an apartment-turned-film-office, Cinepoetics. A short film from the behind-the-scenes team, First Feature Film, was cut. Several of the students went on to graduate and work for people they had met during the film’s production, often engaging the age-old conflict between a lucrative career shooting ads versus scraping by shooting independent films. In the absence of cinema, we organized a weekly screening and discussion of art films. If anything, we could learn from the masters to shoot our films cheaper, faster, and under the radar. Abdulrahman and I, along with producer Mariam Khayat, went on to develop and support the ideas for several more films from within our circle. I shot Munaarawa (Maneuver), following the comic efforts of a non-Saudi director making a film to impress a Saudi girl’s dad (how imaginative, I know). Abdulrahman followed it a couple of weeks later with The Physical Properties of Coffee, in which a writer struggles to finish a novel exploring parallel worlds. Both films included characters playing themselves and were largely influenced by our past filmmaking struggles, not to mention films from Jafar Panahi, Abbas Kiarostami and Richard Linklater, which dismissed the traditional bounds of fiction versus nonfiction.

Students began branching out into society to shoot. Khulood Kamal directed a film called Lily Dancing, based on a true story about a girl forbidden by her mother from dancing or leaving the house, so she embarks to dance on the only place she can: the rooftop. Rawan’s 7839 offered a humble spotlight for Indian workers literally reduced to a number in a Jeddah vegetable market. Back at the university, texts such as Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” served as an inspiration for a wave of short film projects contemplating psychoanalysis and feminism.

And then, the next year, the desert winds of change blasted us right in the face. First, there was the establishment of a new Hai’a—instead of religious police, the government now supported an “Entertainment Authority” that backed all sorts of mixed-gender events, from the Saudi Comic Con, to AlComedyClub, film screenings, and public concerts. Then came the royal decree that women would be allowed to drive, followed by the announcement of plans to open cinemas. Our university program had switched partnerships, from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and there was talk of rebranding the program to finally include “cinema” in the name. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman famously visited Hollywood studios during a U.S. tour this past spring. AMC announced a deal to open 100 cinemas around the kingdom. Almost overnight, it seemed, filmmaking had shifted from a clandestine activity to a government-supported industry.

Not all is well, however. I’m worried that “cinema in Saudi Arabia” will become “Saudi cinema,” favoring a nationalistic turn for filmmaking in one of the world’s most diverse countries. Many of our crews include people from Yemen, India, Pakistan, Syria, Lebanon, the Philippines and Sudan, who are at particular risk during crackdowns, which still happen. On the same night in April 2018 that Black Panther premiered at the first movie theater opening in Saudi Arabia, Abdulrahman and others, working on a new feature film shoot in the desert outside Jeddah, were held up by police for hours for an “illegal mixed-gender gathering.” 

While on vacation this past winter, I received a call that the Uber incident had been processed under investigation as a “moral issue.” If I returned to Saudi Arabia, I would be arrested and possibly tried for fine, jail time, or whipping—then deported. I spent a couple months in England while I waited for my sponsor, the university, to intervene on my behalf. I used the time to meet up with Mariam, whose graduation film premiered at a festival in Ireland, and Rawan, who had been accepted to Berlinale Talents. Along with some books and hard drives, she brought my camera and lenses from my apartment in Jeddah I was unable to return to.

I’m trying to get back to Saudi Arabia. When I do, I’ll stick to riding a bicycle.

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