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BERLINALE 2020 Panorama

Review: Saudi Runaway

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- BERLINALE 2020: A Saudi woman takes remote instructions from Swiss-German filmmaker Susanne Regina Meures as she films her daring escape from Saudi Arabia

Review: Saudi Runaway

Screened in the Panorama section of the 70th Berlin Film Festival, Saudi Runaway sees director Susanne Regina Meures use a Saudi-based avatar to tell the story of how women are legally obliged to live under the thumb of men in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. That human avatar is Muna, whom Meures met on a chat group that aims to support women planning to escape the kingdom.

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Some text on screen reveals that the film was shot during April and June 2019, which is important because it means that this movie was filmed at a time when the Saudi guardianship laws were in place. The rules ensured that women could only leave the country on their own if they had the written permission of their male guardian.

The plot is straight out of a thriller. Muna is secretly filming her forthcoming escape attempt on her smartphone. The plan is to go through with an arranged marriage and, while on honeymoon in Abu Dhabi, escape. For the first time, Muna will be in a place where the rules do not stop her from travelling without a male’s permission.

From time to time, she talks directly to “Sue”, knowing the videos she is filming are being uploaded from her phone and sent to the Swiss-German helmer. The director and subject communicated via social-media apps, and the film was shot on two smartphones. The director has form, as her previous film, Raving Iran [+see also:
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(2016), followed two Iranian DJs who decided it was time to leave the domineering state of Iran, where their music was being suppressed, and seek exile in Switzerland.

In Saudi Runaway, the limitations of the secret approach to filming are apparent. Muna is not a very good cameraperson, and the shoddy lensing is not helped by the editing, which cuts continually to big moments at the cost of nuance and character study. The filmmaker respectfully blurs out the faces of Muna's family, in an attempt to keep her identity secret. It's apparent that her father is physically abusive to her younger brother, and Muna needs to get out of such a toxic environment as quickly as possible. But that would be the case whether she was in Saudi Arabia or Zurich.

There is no grey area in this story, and it feels like the filmmaker has made the right movie at the wrong time: with the guardianship laws having been repealed last August, it would be interesting to see whether the situation has actually changed. Instead, Meures questions the motives as to why these laws have been repealed with a text-on-screen epilogue. But isn't any reason to repeal the abhorrent laws trapping women positive? It almost feels like she's damning for the sake of damning – and let’s face it, Saudi Arabia, being a pariah state, is an easy target.

As it is, the documentary plays just how one would expect. It's laudable for undermining outdated patriarchy, but there is little in the way of dramatic surprise. There's not even much tension in the escape, even with Muna's passport expiring soon. The husband is not a new villain, just a likeable non-character. It's not the fault of the filmmaker that more interesting questions have emerged since Muna sought asylum. Has Saudi changed? Are women freer now? Was there a rush to the airport? As it is, Saudi Runaway makes for a great headline, but a lesser documentary.

Saudi Runaway is a Swiss production staged by Christian Frei Filmproductions GmbH. Its world sales are handled by Rise and Shine.

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