Saudi Women’s Driving School


The world’s scariest profession: driving instructor.

(2019) Documentary (HBOSarah 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
NEXT:
Badland

Unmasking Jihadi John: Anatomy of a Terrorist


The face of a modern barbarian.

2019) Documentary (HBO) Mohammed Emwazi, Richard Verkaik, General David Petraeus, Dr. Emman El-Badawi, Jo Shorter, Claudia Giarusso, Douglas H. Wise, James Foley, Jesse Morton, Nicholas Henin, Federico Motka, Simon McKay, Dr. Mamadou Bacoun, Richard Walton, Steve Warren, Robert Harrison, Diane Foley, Lord David Anderson, Bethany Haines. Directed by Anthony Wonke

 

News junkies will remember the saga of Jihadi John, a member of ISIS who beheaded journalists and aid workers on-camera after forcing them to read documentaries repudiating their home countries. What distinguished him from other terrorists was his accent; he was British and well-educated, nothing like the terrorists we’d come to expect. When he spoke of the United States or his home United Kingdom, it was in a voice dripping with venom and hatred.

Eventually, intelligence agencies identified him as Mohammed Emwazi, born in Kuwait but brought to London by his family when he was six. By all accounts through teachers and classmates he was a shy student who was teased about his bad breath and who had a passion for Manchester United, the soccer club. He also liked to drink and watch The Simpsons. What led him to become a brutal terrorist capable of torture and murder, and of making videos so that his savagery could be seen in all its barbarity?

That’s the question that you would think this documentary was posing based on its title but you’ll be sorely disappointed if you do. We get lots of talking heads – often filmed starkly in pools of white light against black settings not unlike an interrogation – chatting about his upbringing, utilizing school mates and teachers (although no relatives who likely didn’t want to participate). From there we see him as a young man, wanting to travel to Tanzania to go on safari but by that point he was already on a terrorist watch list for his visits to Somalia and for some of his expressions of radical fundamentalist Islam. From there on, we are given the perspective of those chasing him, and those who survived capture (Motka and Henin) and relatives of those who did not (Haines and Diane Foley).

Wonke, a veteran British documentarian, gives us plenty of background behind the formation of ISIS and of the terrible deeds done by the group that elevated them even ahead of Al-Qaeda in the ranks of terrorist organizations. Still, we never really get much insight into how Emwazi became what he did. There are no a’ha moments, no major events that radicalized him. It seems to have been a process, something harder to document. Wonke chooses not to which is what makes this documentary so disappointing.

It’s not that this isn’t a useful film by any means – if you want to look at how ISIS and Emwazi in particular utilized social media to get their radical message across. We are also reminded how these men did unforgivable things in service to their religious message, a warning of the dangers of religion turned radical. This isn’t a film for the squeamish (although they have the decency not to show the actual beheadings but excerpts from the tapes just prior to the crimes) nor is it for the hateful but it is for people who need to be reminded just how warped obsessive belief can make even the most ordinary of people. I just wish that the filmmakers had been more successful in explaining how it was done in this case.

REASONS TO SEE: Utilizes recreated footage very nicely.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t really deliver on the promise to explain how he became radicalized.
FAMILY VALUES: There are depictions of violence and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Emwazi attended the University of Westminster where he studied  information systems with business management, eventually securing a degree..
BEYOND THE THEATER: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/28/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Homegrown: The Counter-Terror Dilemma
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Teacher

Warning: This Drug May Kill You


A heartbroken mother comforts her heroin-addicted daughter.

(2017) Documentary (HBO) Kathy Kelly, Stephany Gay, Britt Doyle, Preston Doyle, Britt Doyle Jr., Harry Doyle, Gail Cole, Brian Cole, David Cayce, Judy Cayce Enseki. Directed by Perri Peltz

 

We are told that the current opioid crisis is the worst drug addiction crisis in American history. Even as the debate for stricter gun control rages in the forefront of the American consciousness, the opioid crisis remains in the background despite the fact that it is responsible for more American deaths than are taken by guns.

This HBO documentary tries to take the epidemic out of the background and bring it into the light of day. It presents four families directly affected by the opioid epidemic in an attempt to put a human face on drug addiction. It begins by showing cell phone footage of addicts keeling over, barely conscious; of paramedics trying to revive them. In one heartbreaking moment, a mother is collapsed in the toy aisle of a grocery store while her toddler wails disconsolately beside her. Then, we cut to a Purdue Pharmaceutical advertisement from the 1990s in which Dr. Alan Spanos blithely advises doctors that opioids such as Dilaudid, Percoset and OxyContin were perfectly safe to prescribe for chronic pain patients and that the addictive properties of those drugs had been overstated.

Of course, we all know that’s hogwash and what’s more, we know that Purdue knew that it was a lie. They were fined millions of dollars for their misdirection but the damage was done; the company made billions of dollars as the rate of prescriptions went up 800 times what it had been before the ads and even today doctors continue to prescribe these very seriously addicting drugs for nearly every medical – and even dental – procedure. Many patients were never really informed as to just how dangerous these drugs could be.

Stephany Gay had issues with kidney stones as a teen and was given OxyContin and Vicodin for the pain. She began to get addicted to the feeling of well-being that the drugs gave her and she began to take them well above the recommended dosage. Her sister Ashley began experimenting with the pills but when it proved to be a more expensive habit than they could afford they switched to heroin. At first they were snorting it and both girls swore up and down to their mother Kathy Kelly that they would never use needles but eventually both did and at length Ashley died from an overdose. Stephany weeps in recounting those horrible events but now she has a daughter and is clean. Then we are informed that she relapsed six weeks after those interviews were filmed.

The Britt Doyle talks about his wife who was prescribed opioids following a C-section and turned from being a beautiful, vivacious and outgoing woman to a shell of her former self. Her young sons would find her dead after an overdose. Gail and Brian Cole visit their son’s grave; he was prescribed drugs following the removal of a cyst and became addicted and yes, died.

These are all white, middle class and upper class American families being affected; studies show that poorer class Americans aren’t prescribed opioids nearly as often mainly because the drugs are so expensive. Still in all these are stories of dealing with grief as well as dealing with drug abuse and they are emotionally powerful to be sure. But there is almost no context here and we are left to wonder why without any answers forthcoming do doctors continue to prescribe these drugs so commonly despite knowing the damage they are doing – more than 180,000 Americans have died between 2000 and 2016 due to the aggressive marketing and prescribing of opioid painkillers.

The sense is given that there are few resources available for prescription painkiller abusers, although Stephany entered a state-sponsored rehab program following her relapse, although she walked away from it four days after checking in. We may know anecdotally that heroin is a nearly impossible habit to break but we aren’t told why and that’s a question that Peltz doesn’t ask during the just under one hour documentary.

There really isn’t a lot of media coverage of the opioid epidemic and documentaries like this should be applauded for even being on the front lines of the issue but they also should be encouraged to dig deeper and this one simply doesn’t. Peltz seems to be content with displaying the grief of the families that survived the victims rather than explaining how the medical environment changed that allowed these tragedies to happen, nor does she talk about those who are beginning to take on Big Pharma to hold them accountable for the deaths that continue to climb. From watching this, you get the sense that this is a problem for which nothing is being done and that’s far from the case.

REASONS TO GO: The stories of the families depicted are indeed heart-wrenching. The movie puts a human face on the opioid epidemic. The story has gotten little coverage except in generalizations; more documentaries like this are needed.
REASONS TO STAY: The documentary feels incomplete with little context. It’s somewhat “Documentary 101” in form.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, depictions of drug overdoses, references to prescription drug abuse and other adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Deaths from opioid overdose now exceed gun violence and car accidents as a leading cause of death in the United States.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Frontier, Google Play, HBO Go, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/9/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: How to Make Money Selling Drugs
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Thor: Ragnarok