Imagine someone going on American Idol at the height of the show’s popularity and singing songs so powerful that they shook the nation to its core. This is exactly what happened when Hissa Hilal, a Saudi woman, took to the airwaves to criticize patriarchal Arab society. The Poetess, a documentary by co-directors Stefanie Brockhaus and Andreas Wolff, highlights Hissa’s story, chronicling her controversial rise and the inevitable backlash.
Back in 2010, Hissa had a dominant run on an Abu-Dhabi-based reality series called Million’s Poet. The show was a phenomenon, with 75 million viewers tuning in to watch contestants compete for a million-dollar prize. Even without the niqab covering all but her eyes, Hissa is an unassuming figure. Each episode, a shakey-voiced Hissa took the stage, her anxious body language betraying her bold poems calling out Arab society. Her poems denounced terrorizing in the name of Islam, segregation, and extremist fatwas. All this from a woman who isn’t allowed to drive a car and requires her husband’s permission to appear on the show. Hissa’s success became an international story and we see her deal with the backlash from people threatened by what she represents.
Hissa compares the plight of Saudi women to caged birds, stating, “When you put a bird in a cage early in life it starts to accept the cage.” And despite the rigid patriarchal system and the threats to her safety, Hissa loves her home and her Islamic faith. The beauty of The Poetess is that Brockhaus and Wolff open a window into Hissa’s life (like time spent with her daughters at the mall) that reveal exactly what she’s fighting for. So, when defiant Hissa states she’s fine with becoming a martyr, we believe her and understand why.
The Poetess plays Tuesday Apr. 24th at 6:30PM as a part of the Human Rights Watch Fest