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Q&A: Yaara Bou Melhem, Behind-the-Scenes of Saudi Design Queens

Yaara Bou Melhem is an independent journalist and filmmaker who has worked in the remotest corners of Australia and around the world. Her…
Q&A: Yaara Bou Melhem, Behind-the-Scenes of Saudi Design Queens
Director Yaara Bou Melhem and DOP Mark Dobbin filming at the top of the iconic Al Faisaliah Tower in Riyadh.
Yaara’s new documentary for Al Jazeera Witness tells the story of two young Saudi women, who host a design event that is pushing boundaries of art and tradition.

Yaara Bou Melhem is an independent journalist and filmmaker who has worked in the remotest corners of Australia and around the world. Her films have given viewers a unique look into Syrian rebel-held tunnels, Libyan jails after the fall of Gaddafi, and cannabis farmers in Lebanon joining the fight against ISIS. Yaara has won two UN Media Peace Awards, a Bronze Medal at the New York Festival, a Hong Kong Human Rights Press Award, and a Walkley Award for her reporting in Australia, Asia, and the MENA region. She was also named the Walkley Freelance Journalist of the Year for 2016 and the Young Australian Television Journalist of the Year by the Walkley Foundation in 2009 and 2011. She has reported and directed films for Australian and international broadcasters including Al Jazeera English, CNN, SBS TV Australia, and ABC News Australia.

How did you find the story about the women organizing Saudi Design Week?

My partner is a designer and he exhibited at Saudi Design Week the previous year. He came back to me with an amazing tale about these ladies in Saudi Arabia, who are running Saudi Design Week. They’re running shows, they’re smart, and they seem to be really on top of it and they’re young. So that piqued my curiosity — who are these women running a really unique event for a country like Saudi Arabia, for a country that doesn’t promote or value the arts? That doesn’t have theaters, cinemas, and where cultural activities like that take a back step to everything else. That’s what initially got me interested.

And then you pitched the story to Al Jazeera?

I’ve been working with different Al Jazeera departments for almost six years now, and I had actually been working on another documentary for Witness called “Creating a Nation.” The executive producer of Witness and I were talking about this program when she said she’d love to do a story about design in the Middle East. And I told her I heard this story about some women in Saudi Arabia who were putting on Saudi Design Week and she loved it.

What kind of challenges did you face in producing the documentary?

I thought that I would need to pick up some filming because my DOP was male and I was filming with females in Saudi Arabia, so I thought there might be some times where my colleague would have to sit it out. So we were prepared to do that, but I didn’t have to do any filming in the end. Most people were educated abroad, or have dual nationalities, or have been really exposed to the world outside Saudi Arabia. There was no problem at all while we were filming with my colleague, which I think is unusual in Saudi Arabia, but not unusual at all in the type of crowd we were in.

Director Yaara Bou Melhem and DOP Mark Dobbin at the Saudi Design Week venue.

It’s extremely difficult to bring in camera equipment to Saudi Arabia — we initially thought that we could bring our camera equipment — and that turned out not to be the case. It’s extremely expensive to hire equipment there because the production companies know that it’s extremely difficult to get the permits needed to bring in equipment. This is a common complaint of filmmakers who go to Saudi Arabia without getting the notoriously difficult-to-get permits to bring in equipment. The rates that you would hire a camera in New York would be double in Saudi Arabia. And for a high-end documentary where you want the right lenses and even the basic stuff, getting the whole kit together would price out most people. It took us a couple of days just to get the right equipment, so that put a dent in the filming process.

Our visas also came three or four days later than we wanted them to. We missed out on three or four filming days, where we wanted to get more of the lead up to the actual event and spend more time with our leading ladies. But that’s always going to be a challenge with Saudi Arabia because visas don’t come on time and sometimes they don’t come at all.

There were a couple times in the documentary that people’s faces were blurred, such as Wadha’s mother. Why was that?

The reason for that was completely silly on our part. Basically, Wadha’s mother forgot to put on her abaya and didn’t realize it until after we had filmed and left Saudi Arabia. She was completely horrified that she wasn’t wearing it and asked me to remove her from the film. And I said no, let’s compromise. I felt she was such a strong character in our film and I really wanted her perspective to be in it. The middle ground was that we blur her, which is never a good look in a documentary, but I think it did have a subliminal message that there are certain pressures in Saudi Arabia. I think it still conveyed what Wadha’s mother wanted to say while at the same time shedding light on the context of where she’s saying it.

I know that if I was in another Middle Eastern country filming at someone’s home, not wearing an abaya wouldn’t be an issue later down the track, but I can’t say what the issues would be in Saudi Arabia. I didn’t want my film about women doing incredible things in Saudi Arabia to put a woman in harm’s way. It would go against the spirit of the film.

Was there anyone you had trouble getting access to?

When it comes to high profile people, there’s a certain sensitivity on their part in how they’re portrayed and if it would have certain ramifications for them. One of the mentors for the Saudi Design Week is a princess. You might have noticed her fleetingly in the film, but you wouldn’t have seen her face. We were given permission to use her voice, but we couldn’t film her face, so we had to film her from the side or behind. And if you did see a little of her face, then we had to blur that. Because she’s also a minister, she needed permission from the royal court in order to show her face in an interview.

There was also a businessman who was quite concerned with how we portrayed him and what he said about Saudi Design Week and Saudi Arabia. It took a while for us to get some of the people involved, like the businessman, to give us releases. I think that speaks to how people are not quite clear on what the regulations are and what is allowed in Saudi Arabia right now. People would rather err on the side of caution than do something that may seem quite small or normal at the time, but then it gets misconstrued, or interpreted in a way that puts them at a disadvantage. You have to be really diplomatic and quite creative in how you approach things while keeping to the spirit of what you’re trying to do.

Was it different working in Saudi Arabia as a woman compared to other places you’ve worked?

To be honest, sometimes I forgot I was in Saudi Arabia. I think it was because I was surrounded by these ladies a lot of the time, and I was in this very particular world where everything was about the arts and culture. It would often be people who are designers, who are working in galleries, in communications, in magazines, or in the media. These are all people who are quite liberal, in terms of being exposed to different ideas, and people were coming from all different walks of life. I didn’t find myself wearing the veil a lot, just to put it into context.

There was this time I was in a shopping center, and I was just going there for lunch with my fixer, and I was wearing my abaya and veil. There were a lot of ladies walking around without their veil on — they were wearing it around their necks and would pull it up later if they had to walk outside. I was lulled into forgetting about the veil and and didn’t have it on when I walked outside the shopping center to my car. Then I heard a siren sound and it turned out to be the morality police who were sitting in traffic as I was crossing the street. They were beeping the horn like a siren and they yelled out for me to put my veil on. That was the only thing that kind of brought me back to reality.

Do you have any advice for other filmmakers who want to work in Saudi Arabia?

Saudi Arabia is so complex and it’s in a state of flux. It’s hard to predict or plan without there being some curveball that comes at you and you have to think on your feet and adapt to the situation. I know other filmmakers who’ve gone there, whose visas are held up, whose characters reneged or are afraid of certain things being filmed, especially when they’re women.

My advice is you need to really scope out ahead of time what could be the potential repercussions for your characters. You don’t want to put people in danger for your film. Some people want to talk knowing full well the dangers, but that’s something you figure out beforehand. You would do this for every single film, but in Saudi Arabia, you need to be extra careful in doing that just because it is so unpredictable.

Wadha Rashed taking a selfie at the exhibition with friends.

Is there anything else you want to mention?

This is quite a particular slice of society that we focused on. You hear a certain narrative about women coming out of Saudi Arabia — and that’s a really valid narrative — but I also wanted to show that there is another narrative. There is this great group of women who are trying to create a niche in society for culture and the arts, and promote those things within the bounds of the society that they live in. They’re not activists. But what they are doing is a service to society, and they see it as a service to their society. So I think it’s an interesting narrative to come out of Saudi Arabia — one that’s unique and hadn’t been told.

By D. Simone Kovacs, Writer at Storyhunter