Million's Poet is a very popular talent show that goes on TV in the Middle East. It would probably have been largely unknown in the West, had it not been for Hissa Hilal – who became a world news in 2010 as the first woman in the final when the talent show took place in the United Arab Emirates. Not only was she the first woman in the final, but she also participated in socially critical poems that criticized fatwa issued by religious leaders in her ultra-conservative homeland of Saudi Arabia.
Hilal's story has all the ingredients needed to get Western media on the hook: an exciting, recognizable notion you can call an Arabic version of Idol (though with the more sober expression of traditional poetry), and a brave heroine who challenges Saudi gender restrictions. All this while dressed in burka – the garment that covers body and face, and which has become a symbol of a culture war on identity, freedom of speech and oppression worldwide. The appeal of this unusual mix did not go unnoticed with the German directors Stefanie Brockhaus and Andreas Wolff, who made this documentary after seeing a picture of Hissa Hilal in The New York Times.
The Poetess really succeeds in uncovering a complex mindset in large parts of the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia itself.
Limited access. Access to film was all the way a problem for the directors because of the strict laws of the Saudis, but they have done an admirable job based on the opportunities they had. A large part of the recordings to The Poetess is made in Riyadh, and footage from the sky gives impressive sweeping views of the cityscape, sand-colored buildings and some rare high-tech skyscrapers. Hilal lives there, but we see little of the four-grandmother's everyday life – other than a shopping trip to buy clothes filmed with a hidden camera, and wedding preparations with a camera mostly focused on the carpet to avoid showing faces.
The film opens with news stories about Hilal's performances in the talent show on foreign channels such as ABC. In the future, the film does not completely overcome the dependence on such secondary material. However, some elements are very effective in contextualizing the transition to stricter religious restrictions on the behavior of residents in Saudi Arabia. This is particularly true of archive footage from the conquest of the Great Mosque in Mecca in 1979, which – after the defeat of the conquering extremists – led to a great deal of power being transferred to the Wahabist clergy, and with the changes in Saudi society, as a ban against cinemas, music venues and pictures of women on TV and in newspapers, and more gender segregation.
Fearlessness. Thus, an informal, observational approach was not possible for the directors, but talking-head interviews with Hilal in hiding provide valuable insight into her ambitions and the family dynamics within which they are realized. While black-and-white photographs show her ancestors in the desert, Hilal talks about her nostalgic relationship to the past Bedouin tribal life – which was tougher but freer since it was not subject to an oil-money-lubricated materialism and uncompromising clergy. It was Bedouin relatives who introduced her to the Nabati poetry tradition (also known as Bedouin poetry).
When Hissa Hilal consented to marry a poet colleague, she got a marriage that secured her the opportunity to be creative in a nation where husbands have the power to allow or deny their partners many and many times (in clips where the couple reminisces from the time of remembrance he was proud that he cured her; she is clearly more pragmatic).
Hilal could not attend Million's Poet audition in Riyadh because of the city's ban on such social intercourse, and instead had to go to Abu Dhabi. The male family members gave her the required permission to travel, despite some hesitation. One gets the impression that it was not about the family not supporting her talent, but that they were anxious that her participation could have unfortunate consequences.
There are of course footage from the show itself, from round to round. It is uplifting to see that Hilal – a solitary figure in black among a white-clad mass of male competitors – is taking the opportunity to tell the truth to the rulers, and that it is winning. The background to Hilal's most controversial poem "Fatwaer" is a fatwa that demands the death penalty for those who oppose gender segregation – issued by prominent cleric Abdul-Rahman al-Barrak in 2010. She does not mention him by name in the poem, but do you know in the background, you can't help but be stunned by her courage. Hilal has full confidence that there is a place for her as a poet and that she is supported by those who understand her. In one of the lines of her taboo breaking stanza, it says, "I'm not one to write for the stupid." Defying death threats online from fanatics, she does not regret anything and maintains a quiet defiance.
The film comes at an interesting time for Saudi Arabia, which is now loosening up on entertainment bans.
Sobering. The Poetess really succeeds in uncovering a complex mindset in large parts of the Middle East, including in Saudi Arabia itself. By amplifying the voice of a believing woman from within the Arab world like Hilal, the documentary challenges the reductionist narrative that Islam is one monolithic idea. It also makes a very thought-provoking recontextualization of the burqa, raising awareness that the scourge of extremism cannot be reduced to such simple visual signs – extremism is a force that must be challenged among those who issue bans and injunctions.
The film comes at an interesting time for Saudi Arabia, which has been featured in Western news lately in connection with the country loosening its ban on entertainment. For example, the government has allowed public cinemas to reopen for the first time in 35 years – despite religious opposition. It is part of a larger measure to reduce the state's dependence on oil revenues – to prevent Saudi youth from continuing to go on holiday and leaving huge sums of money for entertainment in the more liberal Gulf states. The Poetess does not have a chance to get through the strict censorship that applies to Saudi cinemas, but perhaps still warns of major social changes in the show?