(2019) Documentary (HBO) Sarah Saleh, Shahad al-Humaizi, Amjad al-Amri, Laijad al-Hathioul, Prof. Madawi al-Rasheed, Amal al-Jaber, Manal al-Sharif, Aziza al-Yousef, Fadia al-Amri, Adel al-Jubeii. Directed by Erica Gornall
Saudi Arabia is a country that many have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, it has been one of the staunchest allies of the United States in the Middle East. On the other hand, the 9/11 terrorists all hailed from there. On the negative side, women have been subjugated to a large degree. On the positive side, there are signs that this could be easing.
For years it was illegal for women to drive an automobile in Saudi Arabia. To get where they wanted or needed to go, they had to rely on male family members, taxis or Uber drivers. One woman describes the fear she felt; her husband was frequently away on business and they had a daughter who suffered from Type 1 diabetes and for whom severe medical issues were a real possibility. However, that ban was lifted in 2017 by order of King Salman, taking effect in June of 2018.
The effect of the lifting of the band was just about immediate. Young Sarah Saleh, who worked at a Ford dealership in the capital city of Riyadh, was immediately moved to the sales floor, the male managers feeling that she would better understand the needs of women who would come to the dealership to buy their own car. She decided to get a license herself and to do that she enrolled at the Saudi Women’s Driving School. There is an unintentionally hilarious moment when Saleh admits that her dream car is a Ford Taurus.
The school is one of the largest of its kind in the world; over 700 female instructors utilizing a fleet of 250 cars are trying to get through the backlog of women who are clamoring to qualify for a license of their own. Gornall often uses drone cameras to show overhead shots of the complex which is massive.
Gornall mainly focuses on three women whose lives are profoundly affected by the new-found freedom. In addition to Saleh, we meet Amjad al-Amri, an aspiring race car driver as well as Shahad al-Humaizi, an Uber driver who often picks up male clients who have varying reactions to being driven by a female driver. Some are clearly uncomfortable; Saudi society has largely been segregated for decades and some men feel that’s the way things should be. Amal, an instructor at the driving school, sits quietly alongside her husband as he speaks for the both of them; it is something he is clearly used to and takes for granted. She just as clearly doesn’t agree with his pronouncements and the moment is a little awkward.
Gornall was given unprecedented access to the driving school in Riyadh as well as to a variety of women (and men) commenting on the new changes. Many men are unhappy with it but resigned to accept it because the King has decreed it. One police officer in an audio-only interview flat out states that he won’t allow his wife to drive, essentially because he doesn’t want other men looking at her, although in full burka and hijab there really isn’t a whole lot to see.
I also couldn’t shake the feeling that in this attempt at transparency that there was more than a little spin control going on here. Following the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Kingdom could use some good press and I couldn’t help but wonder if this was an effort to distract from that black eye to the Saudi reputation
Gornall also notes that several activists who had been pushing for restoring the right of Saudi women to drive were abruptly arrested just weeks before the ban was lifted; they all remain jailed with reports that some of them have been tortured. All were recently branded as traitors by the Saudi government, which feels a bit excessive considering all they were doing was advocating for a change that was already going to take effect – or at least, that’s how it’s presented. We don’t get any comment from a representative of the Kingdom on the matter.
Nonetheless, there is a lot of value here, particularly in seeing how this one thing we take for granted has such an extraordinary effect on the lives and self-images of these women. Yes, they have a very long way to go (the film spends a bit of time on the repressive Guardianship laws, in which women cannot marry, travel or attend school without the permission of a guardian, usually a family member and always male and despite continued calls for the laws to be repealed, there’s no sign that’s going to happen anytime soon. While I get the sense that the Saudi government allowed a certain amount of questioning of policy, I don’t think the filmmakers got as deep into the subject as they would have liked to.
REASONS TO SEE: A look at Saudi Arabia few ever get to see.
REASONS TO AVOID: Feels a little bit like spin control.
FAMILY VALUES: There is nothing here you couldn’t show to the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Saudi Arabia is a monarchy with absolute power invested in the king; it was King Salman who made the decision to rescind the ban on driving for women in 2017.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/4/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Soufra
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10