BERLIN — Robert Montgomery’s “Lady in the Lake” posed the question of whether it’s possible to make a complete film from one POV and yet create a true emotional connection with an audience if it doesn’t have a face to connect with. “Saudi Runaway” delivers a haunting POV experience via the hands of a woman, most of the times hidden behind a burka, and her willingness to record with her phone the situation that thousands of other women live in Saudi Arabia.
This is the story of Muna, a young designer, whose life has been controlled and determined by a state that gives very few rights to women. When forced into an arranged marriage, she decides to escape. Using her phone as testimony of an archaic and violent patriarchy, Muna and director Susanne Regina Meures create an intuitive and immensely emotional documentary.
Produced by Christian Frei Filmproductions in co-production with Kiosk International and Schweizer Radio und Fernsehen, “Saudi Runaway’s” world sales are handled by Rise and Shine. Variety talked with Meures the film bowed in Berlinale’s Panorama.
How did this project start? How did you get in contact with Muna?
At the beginning of 2019, a new wave of “Saudi Runaways” hit the international media. Several teenagers and young women fled the Kingdom under dramatic circumstances. Some were successful, but many failed and faced unthinkable consequences.
I had been planning on filming in Saudi Arabia for quite a while. But every time I applied for a visa, it got rejected. In April 2019 I got in touch with a Saudi activist in Europe who also runs a blog and a closed chat group supporting women who are trying to leave the Kingdom. I placed a post in the chat group, looking for girls/women who were planning on escaping in the near future. My hope was to find someone who would be willing to document their everyday life and their planned escape with their mobile phones. Someone who would be able to give us a personal insight view into a hidden world. Many young women got in touch and told me again and again very similar stories of their horrifying day to day life. Domestic violence, often sexual abuse, imprisonment in their own homes, no freedom to choose or decide anything without the consent of their male guardian. I could feel their great urge to share their stories but most women were too afraid to participate in a film. Then, one day, Muna got in touch. She was adamant that the world “needs to see what is going on” and started filming the same day.
During the period where Muna was shooting how were the dynamics between her and you? What guidelines did you gave her?
Muna had five weeks left until her planned escape, so we had a pretty tight deadline. She meticulously and authentically started to film her life as well as her secret escape plan from day number one. We were in touch every day, she sent me her footage and we chatted for about 5-6 hours to discuss technique, form and content. I didn’t give her specific guidelines but reacted to the clips she sent me. She uploaded the high res files onto Dropbox and deleted them straight away on her phone.
The film is an achievement not only regarding Muna’s will to record but how her story was edited, vwhich is vaguely reminiscent of Bresson’s “A Man Escaped,” the documentary manages to have thriller and almost horror film beats in the way it displays the conditions of women in Saudi Arabia. What was the editing process? What were your guidelines?
Once Muna was safe and I had gathered all the footage, I employed about 20 translators to translate all the material. I don’t speak Arabic, so all the spoken content was also new to me.
But the storyline was pretty clear from the start, so my editor Christian Frei and me were very fast and finished the film in less than three months. But the footage wasn’t easy to handle, the pictures were often shaky and the content fragmented. We had to turn the mobile phone clips into a flowing film, which would also be readable for the Western audience. During shooting, Muna and I chatted almost continuously for five weeks, which amounted to about 700 written pages. These words served as the basis for the voice-over and also as a framework to contextualize the images.
Your second feature feels very much like a follow-up to your debut, “Raving Iran.” What attracts you to these stories?
One of the things that really draws me to repressive systems, repressive regimes especially with regard to younger generations, is to see how they are dealing with their reality. Everyone is using social media, through it they live in a very comparative world, they are very aware, being from a young generation in Iran or Saudi Arabia, they are very aware of where they are. It creates friction and a lot of frustration.
There’s a question that every documentary filmmaker and even anthropologist have to confront which is how to approach the material and the idiosyncrasies of a society, being an outsider.
I did a lot of research, I spoke to a lot of people, and I knew it would be hard for me to get to the place, literally, and the place where I knew I would find the story I wanted to tell. That is also one of the reasons why I gave the camera to her, because I really wanted to tell the story from its most inner core. At the same time, I don’t believe in this colonial thinking that foreign filmmakers shouldn’t be doing films about other countries. There’s often a wonderful clarity to a well-researched view from the outside. Talking again about social media, I also feel that I can relate quite well to the young, very westernized generation in the Middle East.