Treatment | Behind the Sun

by Bentley Brown

The Great Muse - Photo by Sara Alsubaie881.JPG

Memory: The Playground (Act 1)

The multicolored metal bars of a playground glisten in the misty rain at a seaside park in eastern Saudi Arabia. It’s four a.m., the dead of night, and five women disperse among the playground’s offerings, one on a slide, a couple on a seesaw, another taking Snapchat videos. I’m there too, still in my suit from the awards ceremony of the Saudi Film Festival. My phone battery’s dead, otherwise I’d be taking video too, when a lightning bolt strikes just thirty meters away. The air thins, it is hot. We make our way to shelter, a pavilion we discover is covered in prayer carpet, its skeletal steel beams no protection against the electromagnetic threat outside. I can imagine the Twitter leads now: “Filmmaking instructor from America leads Saudi students to death by lightning.” We continue to a pier, abandoned save for a handful of fishers. After some time, the storm passes and makes its way into the dark of the sea. We stare out into the abyss, the passing storm dissolving the line between sky and water, to be illuminated only by lightning striking between clouds. Not far off the coast, long before the shores of Iran, there is a faint glow, the island of Bahrain floats in our leaden vantage. As if a proof of the relativity of space and time, we stare out at an entire island nation. Is our “reality” their “reality”? Our “now” their “now”? Do the same physical laws that govern them govern us? Behind us, another light. A religious police vehicle, marked by its circular emblem of Saudi Arabia emerging from the pages of a book. Behind it, a police SUV. Our best chance is separation. “Mr. Bentley run to the rocks.” The police arrive. I am down by the water, in a space their headlights do not reach. They question the fishers before turning back to the mainland, their taillights disappearing in the distance. We walk back past the playground, this time no one stops to play.

Title card: BEHIND THE SUN

Memory: The University

Bentley in Al Balad - Photo by Hyoung Min Choi.jpg.jpg

My first morning in Saudi Arabia was spent walking around Jeddah’s old city, the grandeur of its coral stone houses in disrepair, forgotten in what a friend explains is the mindset that, even in the wake of oil boom, “renovations do not serve the religion.” What is built instead: shopping malls, restaurants, faceless apartment complexes. I am new, having arrived to teach filmmaking in a country that does not allow filmmaking, at a women’s school, in a country where men and women are forbidden from mixing in public. A sort of “double haram.” The school is on vacation at the moment and I spend the afternoon in my hotel room in Jeddah’s lone Holiday Inn. Espresso at my side, I prepare class syllabi. And I edit film. I am working on a memory narrative of my Arabic teacher in Chad, where I grew up. Oustaz, “Teacher,” from whom I learned to play oud, guitar, and keys, and with whom I shot one of my first films.

The program where I teach hides “film” from its title in order to not attract any unwanted attention. Instead, it’s “Visual Production.” My colleagues hail from Palestine, South Korea, Malaysia, and Egypt. Min, an animator, and I spend our first several nights brainstorming a curriculum overhaul to accommodate the burgeoning program size.

We visit one of Jeddah’s “mamshas.” walkways designed for recreation. I am shocked to make eye contact with a girl, her face covered from the nose down, who is out walking in abaya and tennis shoes. “It’s totally normal,” I tell myself. On a second pass-by, she changes direction and begins to walk next to me. My mind is playing through scenarios in which one of us shouts out a phone number. “Zero-Nine-Nine-Three-Eight…” I turn and run.

Weeks into our time in Jeddah, we hear about the opening of a new coffeeshop where Saudis handle all stages of service, instead of outsourcing to the city’s millions of people from India, Pakistan, or the Philippines. The event is high-class, mixed gender, and for the first time since arriving, I feel like I’m at a party.

In other male-taught female classrooms, the teacher would be removed from students, in some cases teaching by video, in others from behind a curtain. Our classes, sometimes five or six a semester, however, do not share this aspect, and we are front seat to the aspirations, fears, and contemplations of a generation of women pursuing a shunned art. At times I am instructor, at other times entertainer, and still many other moments, psychological counselor.

We use our unique situation at the school to host virtually any and every filmmaker across Saudi Arabia. We are told the new curriculum overhaul has been passed and we go out to celebrate. The next morning, the line has changed: there is no way we could pass this new curriculum. We are called rebels. As if we are plotting against the university. The event is so disheartening that over the next several months we would begin to shift our attention away from the university to filmmaking on our terms. I receive news that Oustaz has been selected to premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival.

A new teacher joins our faculty: Abdulrahman, a young man born in Taif in the mountains beyond Makkah, having recently completed his Master’s in filmmaking in the United States. Abdulrahman has a dream to shoot a feature film. In a new government ruling, the religious police is stripped of its power to arrest without police escort. We are cautious but we believe there is space to make a movie. We begin putting together a team to shoot The Great Muse.

Memory: The Great Muse (Act 2, Part 1)

The Great Muse - Photo by Sara Alsubaie242.JPG

Abdulrahman gathers a cast and crew, many of whom hail from our university program, into the living room of his parents’ house to make what is for all their first feature film in Saudi Arabia. The film depicts a young high school graduate, played by Jeddah’s AlComedy Club star Ismail Alhassan, who must decide what to do for his future. Throughout production, Abdulrahman dons a thob and shemagh and heads in the mornings to the local ministry office, endlessly arguing that we should be granted a cinema permit, even though no such document exists. Here our B story begins, as I am seeing Mai, a psychology graduate who is working as script supervisor, throughout this set. It is forbidden to date and her family has already taken her cell phone to restrain her from socializing - the film set is the only place we can see each other.

After two weeks of shooting, we have one final house-based shoot, this one at Abdulrahman’s grandmother’s house, before heading into the public. On the last scene of the shoot, though, an uncle barges in and kicks out the crew of thirty people, saying that it is wrong for us to be in a mixed gender environment, and for the women not to be wearing abaya.

We leave the house, scrambling into vehicles and communicating via WhatsApp on where to go next. Abdulrahman’s house is not safe. Women of course are not allowed to drive and are paying attention to not alert their families’ drivers to the situation that has just emerged, in fear that they could be barred from continuing to work on the film. We head to the house of a grandfather of our assistant director.

The next day, to another grandfather’s house, this one of our second assistant director. Here we regroup, we huddle, and we gather our spirits. There will be no more shooting, no going out into the public, until we have a permit.

After her brother visits set for a supporting character role, Mai is forbidden from working the set, and is put under house arrest.

Days later, the first cinema permit in the history of Saudi Arabia is granted. The shoot continues but will not be wrapped until a partial re-shoot six months later.


Memory: The Next Films

Rawan Namngani served as the director of photography on The Great Muse - the first female DP on a feature film in Saudi Arabia. She had a vision for a new film, Trance, a portrayal of hypnosis on a date farm in eastern Saudi Arabia. For the first time, we packed up and flew across the country to shoot the film. Back in Jeddah with another major scene to shoot, the team is worried that budget and personnel will not allow for the successful completion of the film.

Oustaz has meanwhile premiered at Berlinale, and I travel to present it at the Sudan Independent Film Festival, playing the piano soundtrack and narrating live to an audience of over 1,000.

Months later, Rawan would embark on a new project, this time in the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction. 7839 examined the daily bustlings of Jeddah’s largest vegetable market, while offering an inquisitive portrayal of class and inequalities. Mai joins this project as an assistant director, using a night class as a diversion to come to the vegetable market to film.

Here, we start to push it. I begin discussing with Mai a new hybrid fiction/nonfiction film, Munaawara, that offers a scripted portrayal of behind-the-scenes on a Jeddah production. In the story, a character uses a film as an excuse to meet a woman’s father, whom he has cast in a role. In the meantime, the lead actor has dropped out of the film and the director must find a way for the production to go on. I take advantage of a summer break to put together a crew, featuring Reem Almodian as a head producer, Abdulrahman, Rawan, Mai, and myself as actors, and additional cast from Jeddah’s AlComedy Club. As I am not Saudi, we are shooting in public places without a permit, continually pushing the limits in what we view as a changing society.

Abdulrahman, inspired by the guerilla style of Munaawara and unable to gather funds for a second feature, writes a five-day feature shoot: The Principle Properties of Coffee. In the film, a writer struggles to complete his novel about parallel universes and meanders about Jeddah discussing it with local filmmaker friends and coffeeshop companions. Mai, Ismail, and I all play roles in the film.

Not long afterward, I head to Chad, in search of a friend to finish the production of my film Daktor. Moussa, who many understood to be miraculously healed during my childhood, has gone blind, and is struggling to take care of his family.

Memory: Chad (Act 2, Part 2)

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I arrive in Chad to a new hall of the airport. As always there is some change on the surface. But I was quickly reminded of stories my father would tell me, when I was growing up, of the under-the-table dealings of government officials, bribery, and favoritism that plagued the country’s progress. As I was growing up in Chad there was a perennial civil war of sorts, the government battling rebel factions in the north, and later in the east, facing near toppling in both 2006 and 2008, when my family fled on a military cargo plane.

At the airport, I was asked by an immigration officer to pay a bribe to cover my yellow fever vaccination records. I waited, my childhood friends Hassan and Djiddo arriving and sending a security officer in for me, and left. Nothing paid, but worried the immigration officer, who had grabbed my pocket asking for the money would track me on my way out of the country the next week.

Hassan and I plan a trip to Ati, the small town in the middle of the country where we grew up. We rent seats in a market truck. More than ever before, security checkpoints litter the trip, with armed military officers checking IDs of all passengers and accepting bribes for those who do not have theirs. “Any of you could be Boko Haram,” they say, referring to the Islamist group in Nigeria known for its explosions and kidnappings.

Arriving in Ati, we have one day to spend among the streets, trees, and people of our past. I happen upon a town meeting of some elders. “This is Bentley, the son of the doctor, and a student of Oustaz,” one proclaims. We head to the Batha River and take a swim. This time, I’m armed with two cameras, which I’ve also brought along for our visit to Moussa.

We find him, riding in the back of a neighbor’s motorcycle, unable to see us, reaching a hand blindly to shake, and to hug. We head to a mat outside his home, and sip coffee. Upon departure, I cannot hold it in, and begin to cry heavily. We board Hassan’s motorcycle, both of us in tears. Later that night, in the street outside the door of the long-deceased Oustaz, I have my first panic attack. I am unable to reach Mai on the phone. Hassan cares for me, and we head to an open field where we once played soccer.

Memory: Poetry, Basketball and the Uber Driver

Back in Jeddah and struggling to control my anxiety, I enroll on Mai’s encouragement to see a counselor at a hospital in my neighborhood. He asks me if I have grounding. It does not have to be a religion, but it should be something. Instead of being called “mental health,” the counselor’s department is labeled “mental illnesses,” and psychology not being a top priority in Saudi policy, my insurance does not cover the visits. Mai, meanwhile, is forced to turn down offers to complete a Master’s in Psychology at Columbia and NYU, in New York, because the Saudi government has removed the field from its funded study programs.

We both join a poetry workshop that takes place on Saturdays, offering writing as a space for participants to work through their trauma. Mai’s family has relaxed a bit about her outings, and we are able to see each other more freely, although always under the guise of another activity.

Having met many more comedians during a writing workshop I presented, I begin going to AlComedy Club on a weekly basis, which now has government validation in a push to support the entertainment industry. Around the same time, a watershed announcement is made: women will be allowed to drive in the next year.

A local photographer from Sudan, Hussam, invites me to play basketball at the Ahli sports club. I start going twice a week, managing panic symptoms when my heart rate increases, but enjoying the thrill of a sport I grew to love when growing up in Chad. The court is another scene for Jeddah’s diversity, among us are people from Senegal, Sudan, Syria, Jordan, India, Yemen, and the Philippines.

Nothing lasts forever, though, and I sprain my ankle in a full court game. Mai meets me at the hospital to review my x-rays. We decide to get Yemeni food at a nearby mall food court, and call an Uber to head to another hospital, where Mai has told her mom she is taking a night seminar. She and I sit next to each other, looking at photos on her phone and talking about friends whom she had met while studying at Cambridge one summer. Minutes into the ride, the driver begins asking our nationality, saying he’ll take us to the police. He pulls over next to a squad car, its officer away. “Officer!” He shouts. Mai and I continue walking down the road, but she suggests we split up for safety. She disappears into a mobile phone shop. I am near the road, the driver behind me, and not far from him, the police officer. I am asked for my ID, and instructed to give the identity of the woman. I refuse, saying that the driver has unjustly accused me because of my nationality. The officer turns to the Uber driver and tells him it’s okay, he can leave, the police will handle it from here. The driver says “I’ve already called the police. An official squad car is on its way.” He tells them we said the words “Iran,” and “Makkah,” and “God knows what they were planning. I am held, questioned. Abdulrahman, with whom I had been planning to get shisha, arrives. We head to the police station, where the driver and I file reports. Two officers debate how to file the driver’s complaint. “Should we say they were hugging?” They call a superior officer who instructs them to write “immoral behavior.” I am told that if there is an investigation, I will hear about it the next day.


Memory: Jeddah, the Final Months (Act III)

It was not until two months later when I was away in America, on a winter break, that I received word from Abdulrahman that the driver’s report had been processed as a “moral case” and that I was under investigation.

I did not know it at the time, but after the Uber driver incident, the next two months would be my last in Jeddah. I filled them with more AlComedy Club and poetry gatherings, using an open mic event to try my hand at stand-up comedy for the first time, doing a bit on my students’ addiction to tissues, particularly during exams. I also perform new music, this time collaborating with a local punk band for an underground holiday show. Although not publicly advertised, more and more musical events are sprouting up, with the government even announcing its support for upcoming public concerts.

After our last academic partner, USC, cut ties due to disorder on our end, our film program has a new partner. Representatives from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts arrive for a four day visit. All women, we introduce them to our students and embark on three days of outings in the city. Late one night, students and I find ourselves on the shore of the Red Sea not far from the famous floating mosque. We lift our coffees in a toast.

Saudi Arabia announces that cinemas will open in the Kingdom for the first time. Plans are underway to build theaters across Saudi Arabia.

Abdulrahman takes me to the airport, we hug as we plan to see each other again in two weeks.

As I am in America, just before heading to the airport to begin my return back to Saudi Arabia, I receive Abdulrahman’s voice notes. If I returned to Saudi Arabia, I could be arrested and brought to the Public Prosecutor with a possibility of imprisonment, fine, or whipping. I depart for England, where Mai has recently started a pre-Master’s program. I stay there for a while, trying to negotiate my return to Saudi Arabia, before heading back to the US in search of work.

The first commercial cinema screening takes place back in Saudi Arabia, with Black Panther showing to an invite-only audience in Riyadh. That same night, Abdulrahman, Reem and many others are help up by police on a film set outside of Jeddah for gender mixing, as well as a crackdown on non-Saudi crew’s papers.

I explore astrophysics and begin to find the grounding of which my counselor spoke. I am coming to terms with the idea that I may not be able to go back to Saudi Arabia. That I have joined many others behind the sun.

I meet more and more people who have been born or raised in Saudi Arabia, even hearing from friends from places such as Sudan who had not told me before that they were born in Saudi Arabia.

Having abandoned my teaching post in Jeddah, I am forced to look for other work. I begin driving for a rideshare service like Uber.

The music of Coffee and Sushi on my car radio, I remember Jeddah, my students, my friends, and the bond of shared struggle for the craft of cinema, and for each other.

Start to Roll Credits

Alas, there is more. Four of my students from Jeddah travel to Dallas to shoot a film together. Fear, in which participants in a poetry workshop discuss what fear means to them. We are invited by the Austin Film Society to screen a rough cut of Munaawara for feedback.

I follow up on my “moral case” and discover that, after investigation, the case has been dismissed. While I do not have a visa, I may be able to return to Saudi Arabia one day.

I struggle with the idea of being attached to a place to where you cannot return. Also, the suppression held by so many tied to Saudi Arabia, particularly filmmakers, weighs heavily on my conscience. I look for a way to talk about this, to share this story with the world. And I begin to put together a film.

BEHIND THE SUN - End Credits