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The New York Times Leverages Its News Team For New Documentary On Historic Saudi Arabian Elections

The short film marks a step beyond the paper's Op Docs program to engage its news team for the half-hour story.

“Ladies First: Saudi Arabia’s Female Candidates”

The New York Times

A new short film from The New York Times called “Ladies First: Saudi Arabia‘s Female Candidates” is blurring the lines between journalists and documentary filmmakers. Directed by Times reporter and video journalist Mona El-Naggar and edited by Adam Bolt, one of two editors behind the Academy Award-winning documentary “Inside Job,” the film follows three female candidates running in the first elections in Saudi Arabia allowing women to vote and run for office. The short premieres today at the Margaret Mead Film Festival at the American Museum of Natural History.

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“Ladies First” isn’t the first time the paper of record has explored the non-fiction filmmaking arena. Its acclaimed Op Docs initiative, launched in 2011, has produced short opinionated work by Errol Morris and others. However, “Ladies First” marks the rare fusion of the paper’s news team and seasoned filmmakers; it’s also one of the few Times productions to run for 30 minutes or more, and the first time the Times has hired a feature film editor to collaborate with its staff reporters.

“Ladies First” captures a historic moment for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia but also highlights the everyday plight of Saudi Arabian women, who are not allowed to drive cars or travel without a man’s permission. “The election was just an excuse to shed light on the mystery of Saudi women,” said “Ladies First” producer Adam Ellick, a senior international video correspondent and reporter at the Times. 

Despite the apparent progress with regard to women’s suffrage in Saudi Arabia, there are significant doubts about the sincerity of the reforms, as there are significant restrictions imposed on candidates that largely prevent them from formally campaigning. El-Naggar has been reporting on the Middle East for the Times for a decade and says she’s seen promises of reform that haven’t led to real change, leading her to wonder if change in the country is impossible or if progress is just so slow that it’s hard to see.

Though El-Naggar and cinematographer Yousur Al-Hlou are both native Arabic speakers and women, helping them gain rare access to women subjects in Saudi Arabia, many women declined to be interviewed due to the country’s culture of self-censorship with regard to women. “You don’t know where saying the wrong thing is going to land you,” El-Naggar said. “They risk going to jail.”

Meanwhile, other women who agreed to be interviewed on camera seemed utterly disinterested in the historic elections. “There is a large part of the population that is female and apathetic when it comes to the election and the fact that they’ve just gained the right to vote for the first time,” El-Naggar said.

The project allowed the paper to provide a fresh context to its reporting tactics. “It’s taking Times journalism and packaging it with high-end filmic storytelling,” Ellick told IndieWire. “That really makes our reporting pop on a whole different level.”

The Times plans to submit the short to additional festivals and pursue syndication with domestic and international TV stations. A decision has not been made yet about whether to submit the short for consideration for the Oscar-nominated short films, the Times’ Senior Manager of Communications Jordan Cohen told IndieWire.

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Though journalists often take into account who their audience is when crafting stories, El-Naggar views “Ladies First” as a film for a diverse group of viewers. “It could present something new, different and informative for an American audience, international audience and Arab audience that might be a lot more familiar with the region,” El-Naggar said. “This is a story for anyone who is interested in Saudi Arabia and the issues of democracy and reform.”

To watch the trailer for “Ladies First,” check out the video below.

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