'Saudi Runaway': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
'Saudi Runaway'
A profile in courage, more suspenseful than many Hollywood thrillers.

On the eve of her arranged marriage, a young Saudi woman plots her defection and partners remotely with a European filmmaker to chronicle the events that unfold.

The faces in Saudi Runaway are blurred, with one exception: the documentary's subject and (cameraphone) cinematographer. Forgoing her surname for obvious reasons, she's credited simply as Muna in a breathtaking chronicle of her plot to escape an oppressive country, building toward a storybook wedding as a ruse for a daring getaway plan.

Muna filmed her story from April to June 2019, using two smartphones as (usually) hidden cameras, with occasional assists from director Susanne Regina Meures. The Swiss-German filmmaker met the 26-year-old Jeddah resident through a chat group for women who are trying to leave Saudi Arabia. After teaching Muna the basics of filming, the helmer communicated with her throughout the weeks of shooting. Meures and producer-editor Christian Frei, who previously partnered on Raving Iran, have crafted the resulting footage into a lean documentary that offers an insightful, first-person look at a culture that, as Muna puts it in her astute voiceover narration, is caught between tradition and modernity.

Muna explains to her little brother that, because she's a woman in Saudi Arabia — and the daughter of a hidebound man, however well-to-do or modern her family's day-to-day life — she's not allowed to go outside alone. To take driving lessons or renew her passport, she needs the permission of her father or future husband. "So glad I'm not a girl," responds her young sibling, who notices his sister's selfie recordings in her bedroom and, in his childish way, threatens to destroy the secrecy of her project. But his boyhood isn't as innocent as it should be: He's subjected to frequent beatings by his father, and he knows it's wrong: "Call the police right now," he tells his sister. "And take him away."

Even as such grim realities register, the film is hardly the dark, claustrophobic experience you might expect. The secretly shot footage includes scenes of the crowds of pilgrims at the Kaaba in Mecca and the communal delight of fast-breaking evening meals during Ramadan. Muna feels the emotional pull and recognizes the dignity in many of the traditions she's grown up with.

But with her artist's temperament (her brief period of work outside the home was as a designer), she sees through the culture's paternalistic treatment of women, and refuses to believe that such suppression and abuse is Allah's decree. "No one has the right to force these things on me," she tells an unseen audience, while her grandmother, looking ahead to Muna's arranged marriage and the inevitable sacrifices it will entail, recommends prayer and obedience.

Muna gave in to the pressure to marry because she sees the honeymoon in Abu Dhabi as her one shot at escape. But even with the guidance of a Saudi activist based outside the kingdom, the more details emerge about the nuptial festivities and her hoped-for route to Europe, the riskier the plan feels. Muna's passport expiration date nears, and the suspense ratchets up. While the wedding party awaits her entrance, she watches frantically as her phone's video contents upload to a laptop.

It may be true that every bride is performing to some extent, but Muna deserves an Oscar. Transformed (like many contemporary brides) into a European princess, complete with blue contacts over her deep brown eyes, she's gracious and beaming, and the focus of her mother's unbound elation over the "perfect wedding" that Muna knows is a sham.

In the eleventh hour, the anxiety-heightening tug of guilt and love is complicated by a jaw-dropping confession from Muna's mother, and the question of whether Muna will go through with her plan is newly alive. The music score unfolds with a gorgeous ache, and the film ends with the sound of a voice, delivering a simple but deeply affecting message.

The video dispatches that make up Saudi Runaway are acts of bravery, even — or especially — when the lens is aimed at no one but Muna. In contrast with the indistinct images of family, friends and strangers, the hungry intelligence in her strikingly soulful eyes is all the more powerful. She's not the only gutsy one; according to the filmmakers, about a thousand women flee the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia every year.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Documentary Competition)
Production company: Christian Frei Productions
Director: Susanne Regina Meures
Screenwriter: Susanne Regina Meures
Producer: Christian Frei
Executive producers: Philip Delaquis, Matthias Erny
Cinematography: Muna
Editor: Christian Frei
Composers: Max Richter, Karim Sebastian Elias
Additional camera: Susanne Regina Meures
World sales: Rise and Shine

98 minutes

In Arabic and English