Earlier this year, a spoof hip-hop video “I’m not afraid of my sponsor” by Saudi filmmakers Telfaz11 spread through the internet like wildfire. The clip showed South Asian construction workers rapping about the bullying behaviour of their Saudi employer and the indignities of daily life on the building site.
The film, which we blogged about when it appeared in February, is part of a growing number of irreverent, lighthearted viral films from the Gulf countries. Kuwaiti visual artist Monira al Qadiri is currently working to collect and translate clips from this popular genre for a wider audience.
Monira presented a selection of viral videos for a screening in London at The Crossway Foundation as part of Shubbak Festival, a citywide festival of Arab arts and culture running throughout July. Telfaz11’s well-loved hip-hop number was on the programme, which was titled “Jaykar: the cheeky video scene of the Gulf”, alongside shorts from groups such as Misfitz Comedy (Bahrain) and Sheno Ya'ani Group and Meqdad Al-Kout (Kuwait).
There is a “thirst” for locally-made entertainment among young people in the Gulf who are looking for something more than the usual diet of Hollywood movies and melodramatic soap operas, Monira said in the Q&A following the screening.
“We’ve historically had a strong culture of satire in Kuwait. In the 1980’s we had a rich history of satirical theatre, and we used to have groups making short social critiques on video cassettes that would get passed around. They became what we would today call ‘viral’. Some of them were quite crude,” she said. “The 1990’s were a tough moment for Kuwait though.”
The Gulf War put a dampener on this culture of subversive humour, she explained.
Humour is an important way of saying the unsayable, Q&A moderator and Crossway Foundation trustee, Amal Khalaf said:
“We have so many top-down narratives in the Gulf, such as five-year economic plans, that are closely tied in with a government agenda. It’s good to see different points of view in these videos, and to see people using humour to say important things.”
The internet films’ popularity has proved so great that it has attracted the attention of local business: some of the clips feature advertising banners for various goods and services, including paint (something which might compromise their independence in future, as one audience member pointed out during the discussion.)
All of the films shown at the event have a hefty dose of the surreal: we have batman turning up at a funeral to pay his respects, a pious and rather judgmental crocodile puppet talking about the way young people celebrate new year’s eve, and a mop and bucket that takes on a life of its own, to the amazement of its owner, who tells it “clean this house, and I will become your sponsor” (perhaps a nod to the kafala system, under which migrant workers in the region are tied to a sponsor for permission to live and work in the country). There is also a subtle commentary on social issues such as nepotism and corruption - one of Sheno Ya'ani Group's films we see the judge of a film festival being a handed a fat wad of cash in order to accept an entry by a talentless filmmaker because of his father’s influential position.
The emergence of the viral internet video has proved to be an eye-opener for Monira:
“Even for me as a Kuwaiti, Saudi Arabia was kind of invisible, but then I saw these videos. And it really gives me hope!” she said. “People think of the Gulf as this cultural wasteland, but it’s not the case at all. It’s a really exciting time to be here.”
The reason for translating the videos is not just for the benefit of English-speaking viewers: Monira wants to make them accessible to people from other countries in the Middle East who might struggle to understand the Khaleeji accent.
Monira, who has exhibited her work in the Gulf, Europe, the Far East and the U.S., is known for her own videos, which take a particular interest in the mourning and sadness, gender roles and social mores in the Gulf. One short film, "Wa Waila" is a surreal "music video" imagined for an old Kuwait folk song. She has previously tackled the theme of the invisibility of migrant workers in the Gulf region with her 2014 short film “Soap”, in which she superimposes cleaners and drivers onto local soap operas set in the homes of the wealthy and glamorous elite.
The London film screening did an excellent job of putting “I’m not afraid of my sponsor” and films of its kind in context, and showing how young filmmakers in the Gulf are harnessing the power of the viral video to question and critique social norms.