The Poetess follows the lone female contestant on the most popular talent show in the Middle East and the courage she displays through her poetry.
Million’s Poet is a talent show with high television ratings across the Middle East. It would have stayed largely unknown in the West were it not for Hissa Hilal. In 2010 she made global news as the first female to reach the finals of the Emirati contest, with poems that dared to criticise the fatwas issued by clerics of her ultra-conservative state Saudi Arabia. The story had all the ingredients to hook western media: a suspenseful, relatable spectacle they could dub an Arab version of Pop Idol (albeit with the more sober form of expression of traditional poetry), complete with a plucky heroine challenging Saudi gender restrictions. All this while dressed in a burqa, the body and face-covering garment that has become a symbol of a culture war about identity, expression and oppression across the world. The appeal of the anomalous mix was not lost on German directors Stefanie Brockhaus and Andreas Wolff, who made their latest documentary The Poetess about Hilal after seeing her photograph in The New York Times.
Access was always going to be a problem for the directors due to the Saudis’ strict laws, but they manage admirably with what they have. Much of The Poetess is shot in Riyadh, where aerial shots offer impressive sweeps of its cityscape: sand-hued buildings and unusual, high-tech skyscrapers. Hilal lives there, though we see little of the mother-of-four’s daily life other than a covertly filmed clothes shopping trip, and preparations for a wedding in which the camera focuses mainly on the carpet to avoid showing faces.
«While a casually observational approach is off-limits, candid talking-head interviews with Hilal do provide valuable insight into her ambitions and the family dynamic from within which these are realised.»
The film opens with news reports from foreign networks such as ABC about Hilal’s talent show appearances and from then on doesn’t manage to wholly transcend reliance on this kind of second-hand material. Some reports, however, are very effective in contextualising the shift within Saudi Arabia to heavier religious restrictions on citizen behaviour, particularly archival footage of the Grand Mosque seizure in Mecca by extremists led by Juhayman al-Otaybi in 1979, which prompted the surrender of much of the power over society to Wahhabist clerics in a bid by the monarchy to stave off its overthrow.
While a casually observational approach is off-limits, candid talking-head interviews with Hilal do provide valuable insight into her ambitions and the family dynamic from within which these are realised. She talks of her nostalgia for the tribal life of the past, tougher but with greater freedom outside the sway of oil-moneyed materialism and hard-line clerics, as black-and-white photographs show her antecedents in the desert. Bedouin relatives introduced her to the Nabati poetry tradition. Her acquiescence to the marriage proposal of a fellow poet ensured her continued access to creativity in a nation in which husbands have the power to permit or deny their partners much (as their recollections of their courtship are intercut, he proudly recalls a wooing; she is decidedly more pragmatic).
«Where The Poetess really succeeds is in revealing a complexity of thought across the Middle East, and even within Saudi Arabia.»
Auditioning for Million’s Poet in Riyadh was impossible for her due to the city’s prohibition on the social mixing of genders, so instead she had to attend the call in Abu Dhabi. Her male family members granted her the required travel permission despite their hesitancy. The impression is not one of a lack of family support for her talent, but rather an apprehension over potential repercussions.
And of course there’s footage of the show itself, intercut as it proceeds round by round. It’s bracing to watch Hilal’s determination to speak truth to power win out, a singular figure draped in black amid a white-clad mass of male rivals. Prominent cleric Sheikh Abdul-Rahman al-Barrak, who in 2010 notoriously issued a fatwa calling for the death penalty for those opposing gender segregation, is not named in Hilal’s most controversial poem “Fatwas”, but knowing of his pronouncement leaves us stunned by her courage. Her confidence is resolute, that there is a place for her as a poet, shored up by those who will understand her. She says in a line of her taboo-breaking verse, “I’m not one to write for the feeble-minded.” Even as online death threats from hardliners come, she remains without regret and calmly defiant.
Where The Poetess really succeeds is in revealing a complexity of thought across the Middle East, and even within Saudi Arabia. It challenges the reductive narrative that Islam is a monolithic idea by amplifying the voice of a believer such as Hilal from within the Arab world. It also offers a thought provoking re-contextualisation of the burqa, raising awareness that the scourge of extremism cannot be reduced to such simple visual signifiers, but is a force to be challenged at its source among those issuing edicts.
«The Poetess has no chance of passing the rigid censorship of Saudi cinemas, but does it herald the coming of wider social change?»
The film comes at an interesting time for Saudi Arabia, which has hit western news again in recent months as it loosens its prohibitions on entertainment. The government has permitted public movie theatres to reopen for the first time in 35 years–despite religious opposition–as part of a wider move to lessen the state’s dependence on oil revenue and stop its youth’s massive entertainment spending from flowing out to the more liberal Gulf states where they vacation. The Poetess has no chance of passing the rigid censorship of Saudi cinemas, but does it herald the coming of wider social change?