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by Shelly Schoeneshoefer

Susanne Regina Meures, Switzerland 2020

Full length feature documentary film with Muna

SAUDI RUNAWAY literally throws the windows open into the unknown family landscape of Saudi Arabia, a place that despite its repressive laws holds me in rapt fascination. The National Geographic wisely snapped up the distribution rights. It was the best film I saw at this year’s festival. First, we meet 26-year-old Muna, whose life can be seen only through modern technology. From the get-go, the film had the appearance of a typical teen-video made with a mobile phone. Later we realize it was then downloaded in secret, and transferred them to the Swiss German director Susanne Regina Meures who then used this material in the making of SAUDI RUNAWAY.-As the story evolves, one sees the restricted daily life Saudis lead through the eyes of Muna, who is taking an existential risk to send images out of the country in hopes of finding freedom and a new life for herself elsewhere.

She describes life in Saudi Arabia— starting with a powerful image of the annual Hajj, a traditional pilgrimage dating from the 7th century. We are imprisoned in the claustrophobic atmosphere as she secretly films the Hajj through her hijab. One of the biggest pilgrimages in the world, millions of Muslims robed in white, circle the Kaaba, a cubic structure at the center of the Sacred Mosque in Mecca. As she narrates what she sees and feels, we can tell that she is in awe of this spiritual unity of the worshipers coming together, and sense the energy this creates. Despite this one joyful moment, her life of restriction and constraints heightens her anxieties, pushing her to become a risk taker. She wants to visit friends on her own, to drive a car, to go out and get a job.

Muna is at the breaking point when her father decides to find her a husband. The family life does not portray a happy home whereby her father controls everyone’s comings and goings, their mobile phones, and their money. Although laws have changed on the issue of driving, her father forbids it. With the impending arrival of an unwanted, arranged marriage, she grasps her only chance to escape this life. Exceedingly risky, she must calculate and time everything perfectly to succeed. A spell-binding film: we feel the buildup of her claustrophobic existence, realizing that she will risk everything— including death— to escape.

Director Susanne Regina Meures said that she met Muna in a chatroom and collected the uploaded secret cell phone footage to create this documentary. The film received the second place winner of the Panorama’s Audience Awards for Documentaries. Her film RAVING IRAN (2016) galvanized Meures’ career after winning numerous awards. Appearing on stage, Muna explained that it was her overriding ambition to breathe free that gave her the courage to escape to Germany. Some 1000 Saudi women attempt to flee every year. Still afraid, she nevertheless plans to see family members in the near future.