Saudi Women’s Driving School REVIEW – Insightful and Inspiring

A HBO documentary charting the new spaces that exist for the women of Saudi Arabia, after the lift of the driving ban.

During my post A-level year, while waiting for university to start, I learned to drive. It wasn’t born of any necessity, but merely a way for me to make productive use of the free time, and because my dad nagged me about getting it settled before I got too busy with school and work. After watching HBO ‘s Saudi Women’s Driving School, I realised the value of having a license, and why my father urged me to learn all those years ago. There is a kind of agency in having that skill, where you don’t need to wait for someone in order to get somewhere, going anywhere the four wheels of your car is able to take you.

Erica Gornall’s documentary brings us into the spaces of Saudi Arabia, where the ban prohibiting women from driving has been lifted. We follow various women throughout the documentary, and while this offers different perspectives as well as the varying stakeholders involved, it is harder for the viewer to attach themselves emotionally to the piece. Perhaps this is intentional, because Gornall’s film is far from an emotional leaky tap. It is an objective portrayal on the subject, where the events are laid at our feet, and we read from them what we decide.

The most fascinating segments of the documentary is when women and men share the same camera space. These moments are marked by obvious restraint from the women, since the men say things that they don’t agree with, yet they cannot publicly show dissent. The common rhetoric of all the women featured in the documentary is that things have started to change for them. Now they are allowed to drive, to exist in the same spaces as men, to work in the same jobs.

However, we see anxiety experienced by the men with regard to these changes. Some reflect that change is good, but also fear how else the status quo could drastically shift because of this momentum. The fear here is that women do not merely seek to be equal to men, but to surpass them. Gornall chooses not to frame these men within her camera, their interviews carrying a kind of disembodied presence as their name, age and occupation are quietly noted on the screen, yet they are invisible from the frame, only their voices rising to express their views, thus existing in the periphery of this filmic space.

The visuals are sometimes lush and breathtaking, when our screens are inundated with extensive views of the city, as well as the desert. For Shahad, an Uber driver, the desert is a place of respite. Being able to drive allows her easy access to this space, where she fondly reminisces about her past experiences of her father teaching her how to drive in secret. The film makes clear that the greater autonomy given to women is not always freely experienced by all, because not all families come with the same insights and perspectives.

While Shahad has to face scrutiny with regard to her choice of occupation, she is not held back from making the choice to pursue this path. It is the same for Amjad, an aspiring race car driver, where she admits to the bleaker reality that exists for others. It is then the stories we do not see that stay with us long after the documentary is over, knowing that the holding of a driver’s license is a joyful achievement of many, and also a striving for others that may never be reached.

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Gornall's documentary has a mediated approach to a contentious, hot button issue, but spreads itself too thin trying to cover all the perspectives and stakeholders involved.