The docu-thriller is a difficult subgenre to get just right. Finding tension and jeopardy in the real-life crises of others can all too often feel exploitative or trumped-up, spuriously shaped for the viewer’s entertainment. In “Saudi Runaway,” an intimate study of female oppression and liberation where the stakes couldn’t be much higher, director Susanne Regina Meures finds a risky but effective solution to the camera’s intrusive gaze on a vulnerable human subject: She gets said subject, a 26-year-old Saudi woman billed only as “Muna,” to wield the camera herself. Our perspective is entirely hers, insofar as she conveys it via a roving, frequently hidden smartphone. It’s a first-person view that few women in Muna’s position get to share, and Meures’ film does not take its exceptional access for granted.
“Saudi Runaway” is a product of extraordinary trust on the part of both filmmaker and subject — not that such a distinction feels entirely right, given how much filmmaking the latter performs on her own. Meures met Muna in an online chatroom for Saudi women seeking to leave the country, and convinced her to shoot her story in secret, communicating remotely with her throughout the three-month process. We encounter Muna as Meures did, locked in the gilded cage of a wealthy Jeddah household, under the thumb of her religiously conservative father — who will relinquish control of his daughter only by handing her over to an equally possessive husband.
Muna’s plain, candid phone lens captures a daily routine of modern comforts (high-end technology, designer labels alongside her modest, often camera-concealing niqab) and archaic violations of freedom. She’s not allowed to leave the house unaccompanied, nor to take driving lessons without the permission of her future husband. Most pressingly, Muna’s father refuses her permission to renew her soon-to-expire passport: She stands on the precipice of a lifetime of servile subjugation, with all escape routes swiftly sealing up. “I’m so glad I’m not a girl,” her pre-adolescent brother Eyad teases with naive awareness of his male privilege, though he’s not exempt from their father’s heavy, violent hand. In some of the film’s bleakest footage, we see the boy being viciously beaten, the camera as helpless to intervene as Muna is behind it.
When Muna confides her fears and frustrations in her grandmother, the advice she gets back is discouraging: “Be obedient and everything should be fine.” It will take a solitary act of significant disobedience to break this generational cycle of abuse and acceptance, and Muna spies a window to do so in her upcoming arranged nuptials. If she agrees to the wedding before her passport is void, the ensuing honeymoon in Abu Dhabi gives her one shot at making a literal run for it. As the day nears, we observe on tenterhooks as Muna goes through the motions and rituals of wedding preparation, a smile rigidly fixed on her face throughout, while other family members contribute the kind of supplementary drama that could hardly be more heart-stopping if it were scripted: One eleventh-hour bombshell, in particular, threatens to derail the increasingly guilt-racked Muna’s plan entirely.
Muna’s footage, crisp and revealing to begin with, is edited with clean, time-keeping urgency by producer Christian Frei. Beyond a low, solemn score by Karim Sebastian Elias, he and Meures aren’t at pains to trick out what Muna has shot with strained cinematic embellishments: The palpable everyday peril she finds herself in is stomach-tightening enough. Nor, despite its efficient running time and nervy narrative focus, is the film entirely uniform in tone or atmosphere. Muna’s filming doesn’t omit the pockets of joy that make her suffocated existence bearable: We witness her delirious thrill at a rare, spontaneous thunderstorm, and her awe at a lofty (but crucially distant) hotel-room view of massed pilgrims gathering at Mecca.
Muna’s plan won’t leave only misery behind, which is what gives “Saudi Runaway” its emotional heft and depth as it revs up to a finale of unalloyed, skin-prickling suspense. By placing the camera in the tense but increasingly confident hands of her subject, Meures has made a one-off documentary that can’t help but be told on the young woman’s own terms, never losing her in the oppressive extremity of her circumstances. A closing title card states that over a thousand women like Muna flee Saudi Arabia every year. It’s a grim reminder that her story, as presented here, is both entirely extraordinary and one of many.