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.