In a relatively short amount of time – six years or so – James Jones has carved a name for himself in international current affairs stories, making films for both sides of the Atlantic. most frequently for PBS’s Frontline. Fresh from looking at North Korea, the London based filmmaker’s latest project ventures into another secretive country: Saudi Arabia. The film, versions of which screen on both ITV and Frontline, uses secret filming by activists to spotlight how a quarter of the population lives in abject poverty, despite its massive wealth. The film takes a hard look at the human rights abuses perpetuated by Saudi’s rulers, abuses that the West has been far too eager to turn a blind eye to, as long as the oil and weapons flow freely. The UK version also investigates how religious leaders in Saudi are masterminding religious extremism that extends far beyond its borders (it is no coincidence that fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 bombers were Saudi citizens). Taking us into a land where activists risk their lives with every move they make, this film should be compulsive viewing, and serve as a wake-up call as global terrorism escalates. Docs on Screens spoke with James about the making of it:
Why this film now?
So the starting point really in the UK was when Raif Badawi the young blogger was flogged in January 2015. And a couple of weeks later the Saudi king died. And you just saw world leaders, David Cameron, Prince Charles, President Obama, all flock to Riyadh to pay their respects….And it just made me think. I’ve made films in Iraq, North Korea, all these places with kind of questionable human rights records. But the difference between North Korea and Saudi Arabia – North Korea is a pariah state. Everyone knows they have gulags; it’s beyond the pale. And yet we were being incredibly respectful towards a regime that has a very questionable human rights record. And so really I thought – there are people in Saudi Arabia who share our values: are pro freedom of speech, are pro women’s equal rights, all of these things. And yet they’re the ones being locked up or lashed or executed. And so we wanted to go and try to use the same model that we tried out in North Korea in Saudi Arabia. We knew politically it would be a lot more sensitive but we thought it was kind of worthwhile because it mattered more.
There are people in Saudi Arabia who share our values: are pro freedom of speech, are pro women’s equal rights, all of these things. And yet they’re the ones being locked up or lashed or executed.
And that model is giving activists cameras to film secretly?
Yes tapping into a network of activists that already kind of exists. And then sharing our technology in terms of the undercover camera and expertise in trying to focus their efforts in telling a story that would be kind of coherent and gripping for the world. Unlike North Korea, in Saudi Arabia people have mobile phones so that made our job a lot easier.
What is the difference between the US and UK versions?
The PBS story is entirely looking at the activists on the ground. So it is all about this network, their footage, and different movements for change and currents for reform and complexity. So it doesn’t go into the same detail about the ideology driving terrorism. The geopolitics of it all is quite kind of focused on the domestic movements. Which in a way makes it kind of more of a coherent narrative.
So the angle of the PBS film is that it’s the movement of activists but not so much the criticism of the West?
Exactly. So not really going into the central hypocrisy but just telling the story on the ground. And going into more detail, so there’s more context in terms of the different problems Saudi Arabia is facing: the oil price crashing which has led to big cuts, they are fighting expensive wars abroad, etc. And so we have people telling us how it is basically a perfect storm once you combine those elements with people who are unhappy who are protesting.
You have made several films which have been reversioned in the US and UK. What generally do those differences tend to be?
PBS Frontline: Saudi Arabia Uncovered airs Tuesday, March 29th British viewers can watch the ITV version here.