Documentary Review: ‘Saudi Women’s Driving School’

Review by James Lindorf

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded in Western Asia in 1932. Today the nation has approximately 33 million citizens and the 18th largest economy, thanks to controlling 20% of the world’s oil reserves. In 1957 the country’s King Saud became the first Saudi leader to visit the United States. It was the same year that King Sud banned women from driving in the Kingdom. In June 2018, the ban was lifted via royal decree, and women in Saudi Arabia were allowed to drive legally for the first time in 60 years. Director Erica Gornall (Catching a Killer: A Bullet Through the Window) and produced by Nick London (Terror: Seven Days in Paris) were given nearly unprecedented access to film inside Saudi Arabia to document the recent steps the country has taken towards equality. Saudi Women’s Driving School is a must-watch for anyone interested in women’s equality around the world and premieres on HBO October 24th.

The Saudi Driving School in the capital city of Riyadh may be the world’s largest driving center with 700 instructors, a fleet of 250 vehicles, and caters exclusively to women. The film follows Sarah, a student at the school looking to become the first woman in her family to have a driver’s license, as well as women who have already earned their license like Uber driver Shahad and race car driver Amjad Alamri. Sarah wants to be able to help out her mother and not take a taxi to and from work every day. Shahad was taught how-to drive in secret by her father wants to make a little money driving for Uber. Amjad dreams of winning a world championship and one day being able to beat the men in her profession.

The film is beautifully shot, capturing the city, the surrounding desert and its interviewees and their lives in great detail. Mini-cameras placed in and around vehicles, handheld cameras, and excellent use of a drone give the film its captivating look.
The film may be titled after the driving school and use it as an entry point, but the focus switches to woman’s equality on a larger scale. This shift in focus while highlighting the larger fight going on inside Saudi Arabia makes this project seem longer than its 60-minute runtime. Moving away from driving may cause the film to drag, but it highlights the bravery of some of the film’s participants. The filmmakers frequently share stories about activists and protesters that are labeled as traitors and imprisoned, as risk these women are taking by speaking out on guardianship and other issues.

While Saudi Women’s Driving School is an eye-opening and intimate look at what women deal with in Saudi Arabia also shows things may not be as bad as they seem a half-world away. Smaller improvements made over time haven’t made international news headlines, and the Gornall responsibly shares that information as well. The attitude of many men and some of the women can be infuriating at times, but the fight is not over, and these young women will drive the country into the future.

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