The Poetess review – Saudi poet’s reality TV breakthrough … and backlash | Documentary films

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Talk about a tough audience. The first time female Saudi poet Hissa Hilal walked into a TV studio to perform live, she saw a sea of men glaring back at her stony-faced, arms crossed in sulky disapproval. Or that’s what she would have seen, had the burka she was wearing not made it impossible to see. Hilal nearly toppled off the stage after delivering a dazzling smackdown of men who “collect” and discard wives. For subsequent appearances she switched to a niqab.

In 2010, Hilal made headlines as the first female finalist on Million’s Poet, a wildly popular reality TV contest now watched by 75 million people in the Middle East that is a hybrid of Britain’s Got Talent and an open mic night. Her politically charged lyrics and fearless performances were impossible to ignore. Hilal received death threats with a poem attacking fatwas issued by ultra-conservative clerics. “Would anyone give me her address?” one user posted on an extremist website.

This competent and accessible documentary tells Hilal’s inspiring story with a fresh interview alongside clips from Million’s Poet and snippets of the global media coverage from the time. Though I could have lived without the -ess suffix – what’s wrong with The Poet? – it is an entertaining film, correcting some of the fuzzily feelgood reporting of the story back in 2010, in which Hilal was frequently described as a “mother-of-four Saudi housewife”. Actually, she’s a journalist, editor and published poet.

The Poetess was completed before Saudi Arabia lifted the ban on women driving and crown prince Mohammed bin Salman announced sweeping top-down reforms. Who knows, perhaps her brave voice helped the cause.

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Source: The Guardian
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