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 MTV.ca is late in posting episodes, and Canadians are blocked from watching the video on MTV.com, 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 MTV.com 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, Surfthechannel.com, Sidereel.com, screenonline.org.uk, 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.
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?