How James Jones Uncovered a Rarely Seen Side of Saudi Arabia

March 29, 2016
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by Patrice Taddonio Assistant Director of Audience Development

James Jones works on "Saudi Arabia Uncovered" in a FRONTLINE edit suite. (Eric Gulliver)

In January of 2015, a man named Raif Badawi was lashed in public in the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah.

His crime? Blogging critically about the role of religion in Saudi life in 2012 — an act that Saudi courts said insulted Islam. In addition to 1,000 lashes, Badawi, a secular activist with three young children, was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

When footage of Badawi’s lashing was secretly filmed on a cell phone and published online, FRONTLINE producer and director James Jones watched it. Then, he had an idea.

Jones had previously made films using undercover footage filmed by activists, including FRONTLINE’s 2014 documentary Secret State of North Korea.

“I thought, ‘Why not use that same model to tell the story of what’s happening on the ground in Saudi Arabia today?'” Jones says.

The resulting documentary — Saudi Arabia Uncovered — is a rare window into the Saudi kingdom, with stunning undercover footage as its backbone. FRONTLINE sat down with Jones to discuss his motivations for making the film, how he amassed footage from inside Saudi Arabia, and what surprised him the most along the way.

You read James’s FRONTLINE interview below. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Why did you decide to make a documentary about Saudi Arabia?

The case of Raif Badawi is what first got me interested. I saw the cell phone footage of his public lashing in January 2015. The fact that someone took the risk of secretly filming and leaking it got me thinking about making a film applying the same approach we did for Secret State of North Korea — finding people on the inside of a tightly-controlled country who were willing to take video that wasn’t state-sanctioned, to show the outside world what was happening.

How did you find people inside Saudi Arabia who were willing to secretly film?

There is a network of young activists inside Saudi Arabia who are quite engaged online and with the outside world, who question their rulers and are frustrated they can’t fully express themselves. They want to show the world what’s going on, but they’re very aware of the risks of criticizing the regime or doing anything to embarrass the regime — you know, people in Saudi Arabia have been sentenced to years in prison for a tweet. Through Saudi dissidents in London, we tapped into this network, and found a young man, Yasser, who was willing to film for us. We met him outside Saudi Arabia, showed him the camera, taught him how to use it, and set up safety protocols before he went back inside the country.

What were the risks for the activists who filmed for you?

It’s hard to know exactly what the consequences would have been, but there’s a Palestinian poet, Ashraf Fayadh, who was sentenced to death for apostasy, and part of the charge, reportedly, was posting a clip of Saudi Arabia’s religious police in action. [Fayadh’s sentence was ultimately reduced to eight years in prison.] So the moment in the documentary when Yasser tangled with the religious police while secretly filming was a very frightening one when it happened. But as it turned out, he was fine — they didn’t know he was filming. They just didn’t want him playing music!

The good thing about Saudi Arabia is that people are allowed to have mobile phones, and we could stay in touch with Yasser, though I can’t say exactly how. We had an Arabic-speaking assistant producer who was crucial in managing the relationship with him.

Is the documentary primarily rooted in Yasser’s footage?

It’s a combination of footage filmed by Yasser, and clips from other activists who are filming and posting things on their own, like public executions and women being harassed. It’s clear that the information barrier with the outside world is breaking down.

There’s this strange irony — in the past, the government has held punishments in public because they want the people to know what the potential consequences of crime are. Yet they don’t want the outside world to see it — they care about how they’re perceived. So it seems like they’re increasingly carrying out these punishments behind closed doors — like this past January, when they executed 47 terror suspects in one day.

Did the Saudi government share its perspective with you directly?

We were hoping to interview government officials, but it didn’t work out. It’s a shame.

One of those cases is that of Ali Nimr, who was arrested for his alleged role in anti-government protests as a 17-year-old, and is now 21 and on death row. His uncle, the prominent and controversial Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, was among the 47 people executed in January of 2016. Why did Ali’s family decide to speak out?

They’re desperate. Their son has been in prison now for four years, and I think it’s a constant worry for them that his death could happen at any moment. Ali’s mom finds it very hard to cope. His dad is more stoic. They’re very aware that talking to the media angers the government, and the dad had been arrested in the past — he thinks for speaking out about the case about Ali. But they don’t have many other tools at their disposal for trying to get their son out, and they think that international attention will have some effect.

What were some of the unique challenges you faced, as a filmmaker, in getting this story told?

Any project where you can’t just go and film freely yourself is always going to be inherently frustrating. In this particular case, what made it so hard were the very real risks for the people doing the filming. Some people who were filming for us would just disappear and have to go on the run for a month, for fear of being detected by the regime.

“There’s this strange irony — in the past, the government has held punishments in public because they want the people to know what the potential consequences of crime are. Yet they don’t want the outside world to see it — they care about how they’re perceived.”

Then, from a filmmaking perspective, the nature of the undercover footage itself presented a challenge: some of it was shot vertically on a mobile phone, some of it was shot upside down, and some of it was filmed on a more standard camera. Figuring out the narrative and making it feel like a cohesive, whole story rather than a collection of clips was a challenge.

But ultimately, if someone is filming on a mobile phone over someone’s shoulder and the angle is weird because they have to hide what they’re doing, there’s drama in that. That kind of footage used well can be brilliant — because what really matters is what you’re seeing, not the way it’s shot.

What surprised you the most in making this film?

The bravery of people like Yasser who felt so strongly about bringing change to their country that they took the risk of secretly filming what the regime didn’t want the outside world to see.

Also, I hadn’t realized before starting work on the film just how many problems are piling up for the Saudi regime. It’s not just a matter of young people being unhappy, or Shia people in the East feeling oppressed and rising up, or pressure from strict religious conservatives. The oil price crash had a huge impact. Fighting these wars in Yemen, Syria and elsewhere has, too. And then there’s the Iran factor. Quite a lot of our interviewees described this confluence as the perfect storm.

It will be interesting to see how all of this plays out, and to see where things stand five years down the line — especially since it’s a country with so many young people: Something like 70 percent of people in Saudi Arabia right now are under 30.

What do you hope FRONTLINE’s audience will come away with after watching Saudi Arabia Uncovered?

I hope that people will connect with the human stories that are at the heart of the film, and that the documentary raises their awareness about Saudi Arabia today.

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