For a Western audience, there are several arresting elements to Stefanie Brockhaus and Andreas Wolff’s engaging, accessible documentary “The Poetess”: The first is that although we come to know its subject, Saudi writer Hissa Hilal, very well, and though she’s in almost every shot, we never see her face. The second is that the reason for her fame is a TV show called “Million’s Poet” which airs across the Arab world to regular audiences in excess of 70 million people, and yet it’s likely that those from outside that region will not have heard of it.
In format and layout, “Million’s Poet” is similar to any number of Western-style reality contests, from the flashy neon color scheme, bombastic music and dramatic spotlights, to the telegenic, glassy-eyed hosts, the panel of poker-faced judges and the noisy, participative studio audience. It’s “American Idol” by way of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” and “So You Think You Can Dance,” except the mad skillz on display here are not singing or trivia knowledge or body-popping, but poetry. The verse tends to adhere to classical Arabic formats, which, coupled with the sing-song delivery can be rather impenetrable to a foreign ear, although the lines of self-aggrandizement included are reminiscent not just of Shakespeare bigging himself up at the end of a sonnet, but of rap MCs chest-beating the superiority of their own rhymes.
“Million’s Poet” is immensely popular in the region and its contestants attain the celebrity of rock stars while also delivering a personal message. This mixture of high-profile platform and intimate self-expression drew Hilal, a married mother of four, to the idea of challenging the show’s heavily male-skewed bias by competing. A self-taught writer with Bedouin roots, she understood well the potential dangers of appearing, as a Saudi woman, in such a public forum. But she also believed enough in her own talents and message that she managed to persuade her husband, also a poet, to give her permission to try out for the show’s fourth season.
Brockhaus and Wolff’s documentary, though not formally inspired, is an easy, approachable watch, partly because of the built-in stakes of the tried-and-tested reality talent show format. Hilal cues up each of her poems, filling in backstory and personal philosophy as we watch her progress through the show’s rounds. The proceedings build to her most famous poem, in which, from behind a voluminous black veil, in heavily symbolic opposition to her fellow male, white-clad contestants, she launches into an eloquent attack on the fatwa-issuing clergy. Her poetry is metaphorical rather than overtly polemical, but, widely interpreted as a rebuttal to the call for even more punitive segregation of the sexes — and therefore increased subjugation of women — the poem was a sensation.
Yet despite courting controversy, the Hilal of “The Poetess” also comes across as a complex individual whose stance on many related issues, such as what she and her daughters wear and the nature of her home life in Riyadh, might seem almost timid to those hoping for a more confrontational type of subversion. The distinction she draws between the Bedouin burqa — a practical item that protects the wearer from the baking desert sun — and the burqa as a symbol of the extremism she despises, is stated, but not explored much further. Her chief rebellion against the stifling Saudi dress code is to opt for an eye-slit after a semi-comical moment during the first show where she literally cannot find her way onto the podium due to the thickness of her veil. And the contrast between her black, featureless figure onstage and the women cheering her from beyond the footlights is marked, but not remarked upon: The show is filmed in Abu Dhabi, and the audience, while segregated, features women in glamorous outfits with their faces uncovered and made up.
But then, Hilal’s real bone of contention with authorities does not, in fact, appear to be that they deny women the freedom to appear how they chose, but that they disallow women their voices: as part of public discourse, as part of cultural life, and as part of the political process. Of course all of these things are interrelated — how much easier it is to ignore someone when you can’t see their face or read their expression — but aside from her literary talents, “The Poetess” suggests that Hilal’s particular genius may be her ability to compartmentalize. Hers is a kind of courage that is rare, in that it’s wedded to a pick-your-battles pragmatism, which in no way lessens one’s admiration for her: Bravery can wear many faces, and here it also wears a burqa.