Ahd Kamel’s Sanctity was a real surprise at the Gulf Film Festival. Saudi cinema has taken off in recent years despite a multitude of obtacles – an informal ban on public cinema houses and state funding of cinema, and frequent interference from the religious police in attempts to promote cinema such as the Jeddah film festival that began in 2007. Individuals such as Saudi director Haifaa Mansour have, however, represented a beacon of hope for budding directors, with a series of works that have been well-received in international film forums, including last year’s Wadjda.
But things have clearly come along in leaps and bounds (and not just in Saudi but in Gulf cinema in general), as the sixth Gulf Film Festival in Dubai demonstrated this week. Kamel not only directed the film, she played the leading role. The acting, the camera work, the use of colour, the attention to detail, the pace of the story-telling were all a world apart from the amateurish offerings that have characterized Gulf film festivals in recent years. Areej is grieving over the death of her husband while she is pregnant, but while she must handle the exploitative behaviour of her husband’s brother who claims the brother owed him 100,000 riyals that Areej must repay him – or hand over her apartment – she befriends a Yemeni street orphan, Ali, who sleeps under bridges and sells drugs to make ends meet. Jeddah’s bridges are infamous for the homeless youth who find there a home.
The dramatic tension centres on the developing friendship between two ‘outcasts’ of society, a widowed woman and an orphaned non-Saudi, and comes to a climax when the her husband-in-law violently storms in and discovers that a street kid has been living with her: Ali takes his chance to run away but stops in a moment of conscience and recognition of the bond that has developed with Areej. At that point the film – less than an hour in length – ends, simply, Kamel says, because she didn’t have the funding to go any further. A shame. The film brought to mind Jeddah novels by Hijazi native Abdo Khal, whose Tarmi Bi Sharar won the 2010 International Prize for Arabic Fiction.
Kamel, a Jeddah native herself who learned her trade in adopted home New York, says she wanted to offer a more feminine vision of possible social relations. Saudi Arabia is a merciless place for those who fall on the wrong side of religious mores, social conventions, or government bureaucracy, as Khal’s work amply demonstrate: all three will let a lone woman or a lone boy suffer. “The film started with a big question: what does a woman do if she does not have a man in her life? Being an orphan, I have four brothers and I’m lucky to have them. My own experience is nothing like that but I’ve heard stories from women in my country and how they are treated in situations where they need a man and there is no man,” she said after one screening. “The sanctity here is really the sanctity of life itself. People forgot the sanctity of life itself. It’s also interesting to show the woman’s point of view. People think that endurance is a given but it’s a feminine strength rather than a masculine one. That’s part of the thought process behind it.”
Haifaa Mansour has talked before of the difficulty of shooting scenes in Saudi Arabia, for fear that the religious police could arrive and break things up at any time on the grounds that unrelated men and women should be “mixing” in public. Kamel shot the film over the period of a week in the Hindawiya neighbourhood of Jeddah, a city where there are large numbers of foreigners living and working without formal residence papers and crime is in some areas rampant. But the warmth of the people of the quarter defied expectation.
“There were difficulties, their always are, but they were not as we expected. When we got the quarter, we were very sensitive to how they felt and were trying to be aware of their space but the people came out and really supported us, which was great for me. I felt they were happy that someone was telling their stories. They closed the place for us and were happy to appear in the film,” she said. But not familiar with the nature of film work and performance, it took them a while to understand that Kamel was acting a fictional story and not reenacting personal experience. “In the first scene, the funeral, they didn’t understand what was going on and we kept having to ask them to repeat it again and again. When they finally caught on and I was crying, one of them said to me, ‘but how can you cry over someone you don’t know??'”
One scene in particular encapsulated Kamel’s view of the bigger heart that Saudi Arabia needs. Ahd catches Ali eyeing her through a half-shut door as she sleeps with bare legs dangling from among the blankets of her bed. Rather than throw him out, she dresses him down without cutting their link irreparably. A male critic from Egypt suggested the forgiveness wasn’t realistic. “You wouldn’t know what to expect because a woman from this region has never given such a reaction openly, you’ve never visited a Gulf woman in her home, which is something intimate and vulnerable,” Kamel answered. “I think a woman can understand a situation like because she understands that he is going through puberty and at this point he is still a child. She understands and knows how to handle it without being violent. She put him in his place without having to be masculine and aggressive.”