Thursday, June 3, 2010

10 Lessons for Saudis Appearing on Foreign Television Programs: ABC, LBC, MTV, Other

*Update--True Life “Resist the Power! Saudi Arabia” will air in Canada on July 12 at 3 p.m. ET on MTV2. The show's website for Canadians is here.

The MTV series True Life (Diary) recently aired an episode entitled "Resist the Power! Saudi Arabia", which has received a lot of attention, and sadly resulted in the investigation by the Muttawa (Religious Police) for “muhjahara” ("announcing their sins") of 3 of the 4 Saudi participants who contributed their perspectives on being freer socially in Saudi Arabia: Fatima by wearing and selling coloured abayas; Aziz with internet relationships he cannot have easily in the material world; and the musicians through metal music.

I have not been able to watch the video, because is late in posting episodes, and Canadians are blocked from watching the video on, which for American readers is here. However I have taken the issues raised by it and the response to it seriously, and done my best to understand from a variety of perspectives how an entertainment on a light weight television channel has come to be such a lightning rod for progressives and conservatives alike.

A number of excellent posts on the topic have been an inspiration, and I will provide here a compilation of my comments on those posts. They include: Us and Them; Saudi Arabia With No Makeup; MTV True Life Video; and, True Life--Resist the Power Saudi Arabia--MTV. Based on all the posts and the comments, discussion with Saudis, the comments on the site, and a little MTV and True Life Diary research, my impressions are as follows.

I watched two True Life Diary productions to get a better sense of them. One was “I Have Schizophrenia”, which was realistic enough that I had to stop watching it–too much like work. The other was “I am Looking For My Father” which was very interesting, and better than I expected, but then my expectations were low.

Both of them presented a range of interview subjects even though they were few in number. The schizophrenics included a low functioning seriously disturbed young man (actually hebephrenic, ie his schizophrenia followed a classic pattern beginning in adolescence, which is more common in males), often non-compliant with medication (extremely common), about to be kicked out of his apartment, working part-time only at a low level job; a high functioning woman at university (women are affected less often, with later onset than hers, usually in their 30’s or 40’s, and often have higher functioning because of the later onset); and a young man (typical demographic) doing reasonably well with a very supportive family (sometimes the case), and on medication (showing the weight gain that often accompanies it as a side effect, relatively independent of intake and exercise).

In the other episode, 3 people each search for their father in varying circumstances, and with varying outcomes. One is a biracial teen being raised with her white mother, white stepfather, and white siblings. Her mother helps her trace her African-American father. Mother does trace him, only to discover he passed away when the daughter was 11. Her reaction is well-handled by the production team, and is genuinely one of immense grief. She does, with the help of her mother, meet her paternal aunt and discovers she has a 1/2 brother who looks a lot like her (one of her issues). She continues a relationship with her paternal family, and especially her brother, as she goes off to college.

A young man feels he must meet his father who abandoned the family when he was 3, and whom he hasn’t seen since. He finds his uncle right away, who tells him his father just moved back to their home city, and arranges a meeting right away. This is plausible because of the circumstances. Father and son have an awkward meeting. Father says he thought of his son every day; and, sent cards and letters the son didn’t receive except on his 16th birthday. Mother denies receiving any cards except that one, but then again Mother wasn’t happy with the reunion idea either. The young man now feels he can get on with his own life having met his Dad. They have almost no contact afterward. All of this is very plausible.

The 3rd person is a young single mother who doesn’t know who her father is, and whose drug addicted mother has been living on the streets for years. She wants to meet her father because she feels a void, and tries to keep her daughter’s father in her child’s life so that she won’t suffer the same way. She breaks a 7 year silence to call her stepfather in jail to find out more information about her biological father. Her life circumstances are typical for a certain segment only of African American society (though generally African Americans have higher rates of teen pregnancy, drug addiction, homelessness, incarceration, single mother households, and social assistance). The real reunion of her father quest is the telephone reunion she has with her stepfather, which is very moving. The episode doesn’t pick up on that however.

Overall, then, for reality television (an oxymoron to begin with, as is True Life Diary), I found the 2 episodes plausible with a bit of melodramatic music, some obvious edits, and the occasional wish that even with the participants’ consent the cameras had been turned off or the incident edited out. The key seems to be that these are, as the full program title suggests, theme-specific diary episodes of individuals whose life stories touch on some broader issues, but are, of course, specific to them, and not pretending to do anything more than to present video diaries of individuals.

In keeping with the diary motif, almost all the episode titles start with “I”. That is one of the things that strike me as unique about the Saudi episode. By its title it seems to purport to be a documentary, in ways the others don’t. And there’s the rub. In fact, like the other episodes, it is more reflective of the life experiences of 4 young people, seemingly chosen to represent the historic themes of MTV–music, fashion, activism, and sex/love–without the societal range of participants in the other programs.

Still, their stories resonate enough with broader themes in Saudi society that Saudis have reacted strongly (in comments on the program site, and in blogs) about what the program says, or not, about Saudi national identity. The title seems to invite this broader scope. “Resist the Power! Saudi Arabia” is more a call to action, than “I have schizophrenia”, or “I am looking for my father”, which are more clearly individual and personal testimonies of what life is like for the episode subjects.

Saudi is such a young country (1932), though formed of regions with long histories, traditions, and identities, that issues of identity are in the forefront, as they are for other young countries, especially those formed from markedly distinct traditions (like Canada, 1867, English and French). This is even truer of societies that have gone through a period of rapid change, from tribal to contemporary international affiliations, whether because of sudden wealth as in the case of Saudi, or because of decolonization as in the case of many MENA and African countries.

Of course my impressions are biased by not having seen the video, "Resist the Power! Saudi Arabia" itself. However, they seem to resonate with others posting and commenting. I was going to wait before posting on this topic to see the video myself, but I thought that, in light of concerns about possible charges, it was worth sharing some lessons from my own experiences with the media--including in high control countries like Iran and China. These lessons are also informed from reading the Saudi responses, formal and informal, to this and other programs where Saudi culture was implicitly or explicitly criticized, and/or interviewees shared information about which they might have otherwise been more circumspect.

Here are 10 lessons in 2 categories

There is no such thing as:

1) They won't know in Saudi
 No matter where it is shot and by whom, it could air in Saudi, nearby, be found on Youtube, Twitter,,,, the DVD compilation of the season episodes, etc. Do you really want to say anything you wouldn't say on your state channel?

2) Off the Record
No such thing. What if they really need it? What if it is a good selling or propaganda point? What if they need to fill air time? There are ways to put something on the record, even if it was off. Larry King did it to John F Kennedy Jr, why couldn't they do it to you? There are no off the table topics, either, especially in a live interview. They may or may not tell you they are interested in that topic; they may or may not raise it, even if they agreed with you not to.

3) The mike/camera is off
"Yes of course, your mike is off, but you are holding it awkwardly, so that it looks nonchalantly pointed at where it can pick up my reply, and your camera guy is still filming." Journalists might try such a tactic, and studios have more than one mike, often with better remote capacities than you might think. TV production crews and interviewers can be persuasive and deceptive.

4) This will help save your cause
Probably not, frankly. It may be a drop in the bucket, but is unlikely to be the one that tips the balance.  Most major transitions and changes are long, incremental, and multifaceted, with multiple persons from multiple generations. Will you be better able to contribute more and longer term if you measure your input now? Will this incriminate you? Winston Blackmore, the FLDS leader in Bountiful BC, spoke freely of his plural wives to Hana Gartner of The Fifth Estate and allowed the CBC to film them all, to help explain the difference with Warren Jeffs' FLDS activities in the US, which eventually resulted in charges against Blackmore.

5) It will be edited out
Not by you, and only by the grace of the editor/producer/distributor; not even necessarily by the journalist. They care about a good show, one that draws viewers, publicity, acclaim, and revenue. They are less concerned with how the show makes you look, or distorts what you are saying.

There are such things as:

1) The one with the power to edit will determine the story, what you say, how you are perceived
This happened to a highly successful bipolar (manic-depressive) executive, who, with the blessing of his psychiatrist, went on to a TV talk show to demonstrate to people that electro-convulsive therapy was safe and effective. He was walking proof and highly knowledgeable. That was not the viewpoint the talk show wanted to take, however. He was effectively excluded from most discussions, and most of what he did say was left on the cutting room floor. He seemed ineffective, "not all there", and brainwashed by psychiatry into thinking ECT was a good idea.

2) The program may be foreign but you are subject to the laws of the country you are in
This is generally true of all laws. Anyone in the country is subject to its laws. Once the program airs in Saudi, or anywhere else that has jurisdiction over you, whatever you say, "can and will be held against you".

3) Your national country can prosecute you on home territory, whenever you get there; revoke your passport, scholarship, etc
If you are not in your home country at the time, you may be subject to prosecution on return, or to other forms of reprisal in the meantime, or after. Some countries punish the family as well or instead.

4) The program with its powerful lawyers will protect itself; and the consent you signed, if any, usually gives the program a blanket permission to use, reuse, use anew, etc everything they filmed of you
The program may be sold to other countries, rerun ad nauseam in your own, re-edited, re-cut with all the left out bits put back in, and have you recognized in other places years later. You have no control over this. The program has more lawyers than you can afford.

5) They can always hurt you more
That was a lesson a chief surgical resident taught me, when I thought I was in the clear, and she knew I might voice my highly politically incorrect (read self-damaging) opinions. She meant not now, and not for a VERY long time will it be safe to do so, IF EVER. Immortalizing such opinions in a quasi-documentary would be particularly unwise.

These lessons are not meant in any way to discourage anyone from expressing what they feel they should, nor from activism, but only to encourage them to put their media participation in context, and think of the benefits against the risks. It is certainly not meant to support, in any way, charges against any of the participants of "Resist the Power! Saudi Arabia", whom I'm sure acted in good faith, and with the desire to share their love of their country and their hopes for positive change.

Caveat Locutor

What are your thoughts on the episode?
What are your thoughts on the potential charges?
What type of media experiences have you had that you think are relevant.
What type of precautionary measures should be taken when advocating for change?
Any other comments, thoughts, experiences?


Qusay said...

I have asked a friend of mine who worked on the show, and he told me no one was arrested. I am surprised that this show is getting this much publicity, to a person who grew up in Jeddah/Saudi it shows nothing new to me, but maybe to the world outside of Saudi it shows the life of a few young people (i.e the fashion designer, the political activist, the band, and the lover boy) other than the terrorist in making that people seem to view the Saudi/Arab people or which the media portrays our people to be.

I see nothing wrong in the program, I did see a few editing tricks which have been done to emphasize and contort some sentences/words, as they always do, but... that is how they do it anyway, and that is why many celebrities who are accustomed to being in the lime light only do live interviews, so they do not edit and make their sentences appear like something they did not say.

But very good point Chiara :)

oby said...

chiara...American Bedu and Saudi Susie have a link on their blogs...maybe you can see it that way. I saw it and it was very inspiring. Now...back to read your article. :-)

Chiara said...

Qusay--thanks for your comment. I have edited the post to reflect that there is a concern about charges rather than arrests and pending charges. I had understood they were taken in (different than arrests, true) or arrested and released, and that their cases would be reviewed for possible charges, but it seems that was premature.

I am sure if/when I see the video I will find it plausible and interesting, with the same quality issues you describe that are a feature of the genre.

I understand better now your point about the value of it--to show Saudis in particular as normal, and these 4 as standard young people as I tried to point out by showing that they seem to have been chosen for fitting the classic MTV themes.

I do think that people need to be aware of what it means to be filmed for the media especially such a program, and hope that sharing some lessons learned would be helpful to others to have them bear these things in mind.

On the other hand somewhere in the stratosphere are floating tapes of me as a resident used by my profs as teaching tools in private (hopefully) seminars. :( LOL :)

Thanks again!

oby said...

I truly enjoyed the show. I found all the kids inspirational. I think each person showed a different aspect of Saudi Arabia, some that are no different than kids any where else in the world. I was particularly moved by the young man who was trying to advance women's rights because he felt it was the right thing to do. I liked two things that he said: one was "is my mother any less of a citizen than me?" Excellent question. The other thing he spoke about was trying to get equality for all people in KSA no matter the sex, age, nationality, religion(here, I am assuming he meant expats). He just wanted equality for all. I would find it disturbing if he was arrested or scrutinized for such a lofty goal, especially as it dovetails nicely with verses in the Qur'an about equality for all.

Of course, being a woman, my particular favorite was Fatima. I absolutely loved the way she wore her hijab...very fashionable I thought. And her abayas were colorful and pretty. I think the woman has positioned herself nicely so that when the tide begins to turn she will have made a following for herself. Besides what is wrong with having an abaya that doesn't look so monotone and exactly like everyone least if one chooses to wear a niqab with it, a husband can pick his wife out of a crowd.

I thought the young man that is looking for love was sweet but I don't think he has taken into consideration what the dangers are for his intended love. In a place where the least little thing can cause people to talk about a woman's modesty, he doesn't understand what he is asking of her. If it goes bad and he chooses to be ugly about it at the very least he can ruin her reputation and at the worst...well...

And the heavy metal head bangers! Seem pretty much like metal lovers anywhere.

The thing I got out of this is that matter where they are...have desires,dreams and energy to spend and need an outlet and a way to express themselves. In a place with few options for kids and much suppression of this youthful exuberance I think it can come out in undesirable ways Ie: drifting, inappropriate comments to women. If KSA could allow activities that give young people a way to express themselves in a wholesome way and a creative way, some of the less desirable things such as drifting might fall by the wayside. All those young minds are looking for a way to respect their country and religion but at the same time they need an outlet. If KSA could channel that instead of forbidding so much, I think the youth would be a force to be reckoned with. Besides, they inherit the country and need to feel that they are an important part of the society.

I hope very much that no harm comes to them and that they are all successful in their endeavors. They are Saudi's future!

Anonymous said...

I agree with Qusay that the individuals and their actions and not new to Jeddah, My issue with the episode is the editing/context they were put in.

thank you for writing about what was i was concerned about!

Chiara said...

Oby--thanks for your fuller comment. As our lone American commentator so far I think you represent well what Americans were intended to see: young adults much like elsewhere, trying to change their society for the better. In that sense the program does bridge a gap, and also shows that many young Saudis are contributing positively to change rather than spending their energy in the negative pursuits that get more attention from even the Saudi press.

Thanks again!

Saudi Dawn--Welcome to my blog! I added yours to my Google reader a few weeks ago--and re-added it post hacking! :) Thank you for your comment. After I left my comment above, I recalled that most of the Saudis I have had private discussions with about the program were responding based in part on regional customs. In Jeddah these things are more common place. It seems those from Riyadh and the EP want the changes but are more reserved about expressing them this way, and more concerned that the program is less representative of life in their region--while agree that the problems identified are everywhere. One echoed a comment I read online which was that they fully approved of the activism, but wished the program had been a Saudi one for local distribution, rather than showing Saudis in this light to the West. Most found that the coloured abaya issue was not as much a novelty even in their region, while acknowledging the predominant black.

I am glad you shared my concerns about editing and context. The editing on the program seems in line with that on the other subjects in the series (ie obviously edited, and with dramatic effects), but the context is quite different starting from the title, the publicity, and the implication of a documentary to be taken more seriously than most (but not all) MTV fare. This is particularly important since as has been pointed out there is a lot of interest in Saudi, but a lot of ignorance too, so what is projected takes on greater importance than it would otherwise in terms of perception of national identity.

I am looking forward to seeing it eventually--not sure who I know who has MTV2, but hopefully it will be posted online on not too long after it airs on July 12 here.

Thanks again for your comment! I hope you will comment on older and newer posts of interest to you.

All--I do hope that my final paragraph made clear that I support the desire to use the media to effect change, and disseminate that change, but hope that individuals find a way to do so that is effective and gives them longevity as activists.

If anyone thinks it is not clear enough let me know and I will edit it.

I have added in the news about the airing. Presumably other countries will be airing it at some point as well.

oby said...


"One echoed a comment I read online which was that they fully approved of the activism, but wished the program had been a Saudi one for local distribution, rather than showing Saudis in this light to the West."

I know that it was done by westerners for westerners and more specifically for a younger crowd vis a vis the MTV venue. But I am not clear why the Saudis are not happy with the way Saudis were represented. It was meant for a young audience with a taste for those sort of things (as opposed to something very somber and morose). I thought Saudis came off in a positive light...cognizant of the challenges that lie before them in terms of "being unique" in each of their ventures yet tackling the issues with a sense of determination and aplomb. I don't think that they were blind to the possible consequences, but decided to move forward anyway. Perhaps as I am not extremely familiar with KSA the subtler undertones by passed me.

oby said...

I wanted to clarify...

I do understand that things we see as perfectly innocent here are not so innocent in KSA and that the young people were taking a risk. That is why I said that I hope no harm comes to them. I do agree if they are sitting in jail that they can't be very effective. And I would definitely appreciate your (or others') views on the editing that puts them in harms way(I really want to know). On the other hand the fact that they are so visible MIGHT give them a bit of protection in that it could put KSA in a bad light if the world hears about it. If they are changing or trying to change their image they might not want that kind of publicity...

Chiara said...

Oby--thanks for your follow up comments.
I hope others, particularly Saudis will respond as well.

It is my understanding from the commments left by Saudis on the program site itself and elsewhere, as well as discussion with others, that the activities represented are common enough, especially in Jeddah, but less representative of the views of some Saudis from other regions that are more conservative.

One friend felt that there was an exaggeration of problems in KSA eg around the abaya, to make the young people look more rebellious. Some felt that the topics themselves were frivolous and standard young people everywhere, except for Ahmed's activism for women's rights.

As you alluded to in quoting from me, some felt that it would be better to address these issues within Saudi, whether to be more effective in publicizing and acting on them, or to keep from airing problems to the West.

I agree that international attention may help dampen any planned negative response against the 3 participants; on the other hand it might aggravate it. I hope the former is true and not the latter.

Thanks again for your follow-up comments.

Dentographer said...

Due to an approaching exam,i haven't read this thoroughly yet,ill do it when i am done with the test,
about the four people in the show,having two know one very well and personally,another on facebook,and the remaining two share like 50 friends with me on facebook,i will have a post about it as soon as i finish my test and ill say my opinion about the matter and why it hit the nerve it did in saudi.

Chiara said...

Dentographer--Welcome to my blog, and thank you for your comment. I look forward to reading about your impressions, meanwhile good luck on your exam!

I hope you will comment again, and on newer and older posts! :)

Majed said...

Apparently, and as understood from the many articles in arabic and english that have gone through, about the show and the responses to it, the show was filmed in Jeddah, a city in Saudi Arabia, as it is also known to those have ever visited Saudi Arabia that how difficult a task obtaining a visa to visit the Kingdom is , it not just going to a Saudi Embassy in your country and have it stamped on your passport, you need an invitation from a person or from government or a private organization. who has to pledge to take full responsibility for the actions and behaviour of the guest or guests while they are in the kingdom.
In this case, the guest is MTV crew, a channel which is very controvercial and with many suspicions hovering around it.
So it would and will not be able to get a visa without the approval of the Ministry of Information which is goverment department and a representative from the ministry will be cuffed to each member of this crew from the air port to the air port.
In Saudi Arabia, one can not say anything let alone do anything unless he is let to say or do that thing, even grocery store and coffee shop talk should be very well studied before uttered.
And what I want to say is that there is either cooperation or collaboration with someone hight in the goverment sky, and pick the earlier which is more likely when we take into our consideration the pace of changes.
I think they are applying the concept of initial strong impact make the latter medium to light impacts more tolerable.
As to the participants well being I am pretty sure in light of the above explanation quite obviously no harm will come to them.
i will try to post my humble conclusions about the content of the show and what i think about the participants very soon.

Chiara said...

Majed--welcome and thank you for your comment. Your observations are very welcome. I hope you are right about no harm coming to the participants on whatever grounds.
I do think however that no matter where the program is filmed and with what permissions, the director and producer later make editing decisions, and the distributors make marketing decisions that may alter the agreed upon intent or vision for the program, and the participants no longer have any say.

It may also be that there is a disconnect between the government's vision and that of more conservative members of Saudi society who would precipitate an investigation by the religious police.

I look forward to your posting your further comments and thoughts on the content and the participants!

Thanks again for your insightful comment! :)

Majed said...

Chiara, you are right about that even if there has been a goverment consent to film the show, that,later on, MTV channel really resorted to their montaging tricks and techniques to insert whatever they might have shot in private with those kids and did whatever they could do to maximize the use of whatsoever permission they had. i guess that the goverment and the participants alike should have taken a lesson from you on the 10 lessons to be learnt by heart before signing any agreements or granting approvals to the media. well, now i think they really got a good lesson.

Majed said...

First of all I would like to say that, I have not watched the show yet, though, I would like to very much, whenever I try to watch it I find that it is blocked, so i don`t know how fair my comment could be, as it is only based on my readings about it.

i feel that all the participants behaved like shallow and superficial teenagers, though as far as my guess goes non is less than 20 years old , except for Ahmed who was given the role (it is a show after all ) of a highly educated person, (which I think he is ) as he had studied in england and he also assumed the attitude of a thoughtful man unique of his sort, which I am not quite sure i can say the same about him since the issues he championed are already under fervent discussion and deliberation in local media and at various other forums by the elites of saudi society, so he is just another cavalier added to the legion for the cause.

Aziz, he just mirrors the really true life picture of the majority of young and many of middle aged men alike in Saudi Arabia regardless whether they were married or bachelors their life orbits aroud a shining,mysterious, lovely,mind-blowing, fascinating creatures that is embodied in women. So far it seems normal, except that they are not out there each looking for his Juliet and for love that is supposed to give a person the feeling of security , safty , tranquility and above all the sense of being alive , but for the them every woman is to be laid and every woman is their Juliet, and once finished with her they won`t even kiss her goodbye and drop her home, no they will dump her like a used napkin to take a cab back home. and might even collect trophies and video clips to brag about their adventures.

Fatima,studying at Effat University and able to pay fees per annum equivalent to the yearly income of an average saudi man. so she is just one of those girls born with a silver spoon in their mouths , just like all the other participants on the show, fed on Bebilac and Cerelac , her utmost worries revolves about what to wear the next day, and which beach-resort to spend her weekend at , girls and boys of her class never find slightest difficulty in having friends from the opposite sex, or in riding bicycles or bikes without abaya for there are many such places where such things are not forbidden but only people like those appeared in the show can afford

about the heavy metal maniacs they just want to copy cat whatever stupid trends they happen to have a sight of regardless whether it is good and useful or bad just trying to fill the plenty of leisure time they have and pass their boring life that is void of any purpose.

generally nothing serious was handled only ornamental s and toppings were given attention only the issue of women driving was sort of significant to a large sector of saudi society though less important than the wide spread poverty,unemployment, quality of education and health care ,wholesale lady teachers mortalities on remote roads in traffic accidents , marriage difficulties, the blight of , divorce , skyscraping dowries and large spread smoking and drug addiction among youngsters it they had at least slightly addressed these issues there would have not been such uproar and discontent about the show.

Chiara said...

Majed--thank you for both your further thoughtful comments. I think you express well the frustration many felt with the topics that the show decided to address in their call to Saudi Arabia to "resist the power".

While I can't judge the participants themselves--except to assume they are sincere, and that they seem to have been wanting to improve a country they love--I do think that the program itself made decisions to focus on and present in a certain way topics that appeal to a Western audience, particularly the young demographic of most MTV programming. I agree with you that these decisions by the show's producers seem to be causing a great deal of the reaction.

It seems that there have been no repercussions formally against the participants, which I think is good. The government itself seems less perturbed than the more conservative elements in society.

In terms of government consent for filming, there are certain countries that have prohibited certain films from being shot there, recognizing that even if they control the shoot, once back in Hollywood the filmmakers can alter their portrayal of the country. So for much the same reasons as you allude to, they simply refuse any permission to film. This, among other factors, results in many MENA set films being shot in Morocco, for example. OR as in the case of Thailand and the film Anna and the King of Siam, results in the film being shot in a nearby country.

In the case of television and film, where ever it is shot, one must think world wide distribution!

Thanks again for your rich comment! :) I look forward to more on other topics of interest to you!

jaffa said...


Laura diaz latina said...

The person viewing by cable or satellite might not know what kind of organization is responsible for a given program, especially if it is syndicated, so what seems to be a station or a network may be neither. Thanks.


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