The documentary Saudi Arabia Cooks by Jennifer Huffton is an esoteric film that deals with the ethics of men becoming chefs and being the main household cooks within families in Saudi Arabia. Though it is understood women have a set role in Saudi national philosophy, Saudi men have recently taken a keen interest in the culinary arts as compared to 20 years ago (Fredrick 157).
Huffton follows three men: a television show chef, Nusrat Mahdi—a man who does not have work, while his wife does, Mahmud Mansur—and a recipe book writer, Fadi Baahir. Through interviews and taking a scope into their lives, the director unveils the rising focus on culinary arts as a vocation for men in modern Saudi Arabia.
The stories illustrate there is a backlash against these reformations of gender roles. Strict religious Islamic figures, such as from the school of Hanbali thought, have raised concerns with the scaling back of gender norms (Fredrick 253). No riots have begun as of yet, but petitions have been made to King Abdullah to cut the careers of two men mentioned beforehand: Nusrat Mahdi and Fadi Baahir (Said 56).
Though this film provides an expert glimpse into the cultural habits of Saudi Arabia and the not-so-apparent social change in the vocation of culinary arts, the presentation of the cinematography could be largely enhanced. Some scenes are blurred, as in the backgrounds. This effect did create more attention on the characters, yet it disturbed my viewing of the film and seemed to be connected to more amateurish techniques of lens effects.
Another conundrum that could be pointed out was that the stories of the characters could have been more prudent in their focus. Huffton chose to examine some rather unnecessary details in the lives of the characters, especially with the stay-at-home dad, Mahmud Mansur. Instead of concentrating on his cooking habits as the main attraction of this introduction as characters, the director supplied the viewers with details about his past history and extracurricular activities, which did not seem to tie into the theme of the documentary.
I was impressed, though, by the characters’ candidness in light of being filmed in such a conservative country. The interviewees were fully open to explore their vocations and let no information be aside for later discussion. In this way, one can say this film is politically driven and is a plea for a shift in Saudi reasoning according to its future advancement socially. Although the country is ruled by an absolute monarchy, this does not mean it cannot change its gender norms in due time.
Another aspect of the film that touched me was the editing of dialogue. The transitions between the characters in terms of topics and themes used in dialogue flowed with exact coherency and synchronicity. This can be easily seen in the shift from the story Mahdi the television host and Baahir, the recipe book writer. Mahdi mentions that, “Food is for all—therefore it can be cooked by all,” where Baahir espoused a similar notion, “What we make food from is God’s creation—let its preparation be enjoyed by all of God’s children.” In this way, Huffton delivered her message with striking persuasion and fervor.
Saudi Arabia Cooks is a true learning experience, despite its flaws in cinematography and a lack focus in the storyline of its characters. Huffton’s message of transformation of gender roles, whether subtle or apparent, is affixed to the viewer’s mind after their first watch. Considering this is the director’s first film being submitted to major film competitions and festivals, I can say she has fared well in creating a viable piece of art that might become a cult classic.
Fredrick, Gary. Saudi Arabian Religion and Its History. New York: Rain City Books, 2008. Print.
Said, Madjid. Culinary Protests. Chicago: Blue Heron Press, 2013. Print.
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