Saudi Runaway REVIEW | Berlinale 2020

Saudi Runaway is yet another display of women directors in the Arab world doing it for themselves.

Saudi Runaway
Saudi Runaway

Muna is 26 years old and will be married to a man she barely knows. There is no choice in the matter. She does not want this life and eagerly plots her escape. With her passport expiring in just over six months (usually the point at which one can no longer travel) and no chance of renewal on the horizon, her honeymoon to Abu Dhabi represents her only chance to get away. Filming the escape on her two iPhones, Saudi Runaway is a fascinating feminist film from one of the least feminist countries on Earth.

Muna flips the script on her captors, choosing her own story and telling it in her own way. Director Susanne Regina Meures and Muna collaborate from the start, Muna sending the German filmmaker footage of herself to be later edited into a feature film. As a result, her choices are evidently cinematic-minded instead of being mere documents. For example, not once in the entire movie does she switch to portrait mode. Additionally, her symbols of choice— such as a bird on her balcony shot through a dim window or a plane flying overhead — show a certain cinematographic and metaphorical ambition.

Like For Sama, the rise of technology and the ease of which women can film themselves have led to a rise in empowerment across the Arab world. When she films herself, her work is written off as the narcissistic moves of a young woman, the men in power unaware of the great power she has in documentation. In a further ironic turn, the full face Niqab is the perfect garment for secretly filming, the camera able to penetrate through its black fabric to reveal the hidden world within.

With the rise of the internet and high-quality cameraphones, it becomes harder and harder for the secretive nature of Saudi society — the one the government doesn’t want you to see as it attracts tourists and investments — to stay hidden. Yet Saudi Runaway also shows the flip-side of technology: Absher, an online tool for Saudi citizens, gives men the power to cancel their wives’ and daughter’s ability to move freely within a matter of seconds.

Therefore, despite Mohammad Bin Salman’s symbolic gestures of reform, life for women in Saudi Arabia remains grim. Women need either their father or husband’s permission in order to drive, go to the supermarket, or hold a passport. Furthermore, there is no law against abuse within the household. While the husband himself is fairly reasonable, his kindness is not the point: no one should have to live in a system where they cannot make decisions for themselves. Whether the world wakes up to such injustices — or still thinks Iran is inexplicably worse — is another matter entirely. Probably not as long as the oil keeps flowing.

If you are expecting a proper thriller from Saudi Runaway you will be disappointed. The escape itself — much discussed —comes towards the end of the film, which isn’t really about the runaway itself but the choices and emotions leading up to it. Muna is an incredibly self-critical person, wondering what kind of life she will be leaving behind for the rest of her family if she leaves. Saudi Runaway goes deep into these ties that bind us and the extraordinary effort needed to break free of them. While dragging a little in the middle, it is a fascinating portrayal of survival, and hopefully a precursor of a female-led revolution against all places still stuck in the stone age when it comes to women’s rights.

Read the rest of our Berlinale reviews here.

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Saudi Runaway
A documentary quite unlike any before, Saudi Runaway is yet another display of women directors in the Arab world doing it for themselves.