Friday, January 16, 2009

Defiance and Filmmaking

In many countries, filmmakers have the ability to make films about a whole series of controversial but otherwise pressing topics without significant let or hindrance from the state - although this doesn't preclude sometimes violent and vehement reactions by non-state actors. See for instance the violent protests of the Hindu Right towards the screening of Deepa Mehta's Fire and subsequently the production of her film Water. In many other places however, creating films about controversial issues can constitute a form of resistance to the state itself particularly where the state seeks to limit artistic outlet.

A recent article in the Washington Post by Faiza Saleh Ambah charts new trajectories of film that criticize and resist certain norms in Saudi society as well as government laws against the viewing of films (and perhaps by implication their production). One example is Mohammed al-Khalif's short film "Garbage Bag" - that illustrates the dilemma of a Saudi woman who is stuck in a public restroom because her abaya (the full coat which covers the female body) is stolen. The protagonist somehow acquires a black garbage bag and walks out covered under it. The point of Garbage Bag, according to the filmmaker is "to use film to ask why it has become such a shackle for Saudi women." Naturally this is a challenge to state and non-state norms and actors who endorse and enforce the requirement of women to wear such garments - limiting their liberty and freedom of choice.

Although the article suggested that some loosening has occurred allowing for the limited screening of select or censored films, there is still significant opposition to their viewing and exhibition. Here the resistance has two dimensions. First it is the creation and exhibition of films in a cultural climate that is hostile to viewing such cultural productions. Second, the subjects of the films are in many ways aimed toward questioning cultural norms that are stringently enforced - the wearing of certain clothing or the duty to submit to arrange marriages.

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