Arena: The Veil

Saturday, May 20, 2000 by

Yes, it’s still going. I rather thought that Arena had ended ages ago, because I haven’t seen any extensive theme nights or overlong documentaries for a while. But no, the familiar “message in a bottle” title sequence introduced the documentary, and this wasn’t the only old-fashioned motif in the programme.

Coming from a small town to live in a large multicultural city, as I do, you can’t help but spend some time thinking about the various faiths you encounter on an average day, but you tend not to perhaps fully understand the different beliefs represented. So this documentary, “The Veil”, interested me, offering as it did the opportunity to find out some more about a familiar sight where I live (Muslim women wearing the veil). But did it really work?

Well, in a way, no. Perhaps the late slot, or the Arena banner, or the size of the subject matter should have alerted me to the fact I was going to leave here even more confused than I was before. The programme was, in some ways, oddly old fashioned – though typical of Arenadocumentaries as a whole. It began with seven screens of white on black captions, in silence, explaining what the programme was about. It was explained that the main subject of the film was played by an actress, but she would be stating opinions compiled from several interviews with veiled women, who, as you may have expected, didn’t want to appear on screen.

This was the only linkage in the film – which consisted of a series of interviews with various people. Annoyingly, nobody received a full credit, leaving it up to us to work out what relevance they had. So we weren’t sure if the white people brought in to comment were just people they grabbed off the street, or, say, politically active. The man interviewed in his kitchen was a case in point – surely he must have had some strong opinions or he wouldn’t have been interviewed? It seemed at times, though, like this wasn’t the case – we kept on coming back to some women in a manicurists, who gave us their opinion, but at the end, one of them said “I dunno why you’re asking us – we don’t know anything about it.” Was that the point the director was trying to make? That people are prepared to talk about it despite not having a clue?

A further complication was the concentration on the edit suite – we constantly saw film being rewound and edited. One speaker – an Asian woman who said (amongst other things) that by wearing the veil they were unable to live a normal life, regularly had her contributions prefaced by shots of her sitting waiting for her cue, which no other speaker had. This made her look slightly foolish, and seemed akin to the director telling us that her views were incorrect, although they seemed no more questionable than anybody else’s.

Despite all this, some information was imparted. Probably the most important item was the idea that wearing the veil doesn’t appear to be compulsory at all, and that a woman can choose to wear it. Some women believe it to have a “liberating” effect, perhaps because it offers a sense of privacy – they are able to go about their business in anonymity. Yet again the programme was irksome for what it didn’t tell us – a veiled woman was interviewed, and asked if she would like to take it off, which she did. Cue everybody watching going “I didn’t know they were able to do that.”

It seems that the concept of the veil is a complicated topic, but this documentary appeared to complicate issues even more, especially for the non-Muslims in the audience. The voiceover claimed that one woman’s mother tried to dissuade her from wearing the veil, to which she replied “It’s only a piece of cloth.” Maybe it’s the simplicity of this that caused this film to be so confusing.


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