Saudi Arabian Bedouin poetess Hissa Hilal hit the headlines in the Gulf and beyond in 2010 when she participated in Abu Dhabi TV’s regional talent show, Million’s Poet. Offering big cash prizes, the show revolves around a traditional form of poetry and draws contestants from across the Arab world.
Hilal was the first woman to compete and quickly gained notoriety for never showing her face, in accordance with her conservative Bedouin background, as well as for her fiery verses condemning fatwas and religious fanaticism. Long-time collaborators Stefanie Brockhaus and Andy Wolff explore the woman behind the headlines in their second feature collaboration The Poetess, giving a unique snapshot of life in Saudi Arabia in the process.
It was Brockhaus who first became interested in Hilal’s story. “I am interested in women in general and their stories,” she explains. “I read about Hissa in the newspapers and saw her picture and started developing the idea.” By chance, Hilal was filming Million’s Poet in Abu Dhabi when Brockhaus got in touch and suggested they meet there. The filmmakers quickly flew out. “I told her I wanted to make a film about her life in Saudi Arabia, but she said that would be impossible as it is a ‘locked’ country and nobody could go there," recalls Brockhaus. It was here Wolff became committed to the project as he tried to figure out how to obtain visas. “It was while dealing with the visa issues I became aware of the complexities of the country, and that got me interested in the project."
The pair finally made it into Saudi Arabia in 2011 where, unusually, Hilal put them up in her home, hiding their presence from all but her immediate family. “It was only while we were staying there that we came to understand this normally doesn’t happen. Bedouin society is very closed from outsiders. This gave us an idea of how that society worked,” says Wolff. The pair spent a month getting to know Hilal, who would talk to them about her life, Bedouin culture and how it fitted into modern-day Saudi Arabia. “She has a huge background knowledge of Arab countries and why things are shifting. We loved what she was telling us but we didn’t know how to use it,” recalls Brockhaus.
Their plans hit a snag after they couldn’t get Hilal to agree to be filmed without her full-face veil. “We were really frustrated. We didn’t know what to do,” recalls Brockhaus. “We talked to commissioning editors. Someone from the BBC said they liked the story but could not imagine a film without seeing her face. We … thought the film was dead.” Three years later the pair revisited the material and decided to look at it from another perspective, coming up with the compromise of telling Hilal’s side of the story through one long interview in which you don’t see her face. “We decided we’ll just accept the fact we can't see her face. Now I find the strength of the film is that you never see her face, because this is her reality. We went from being really frustrated to finding a solution that actually made the film stronger."