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Hissa Hilal is so firm, calm and broadly analytical about her own society that Poetess becomes a documentary about the status of women in Saudi Arabia.

On initial acquaintance, Poetess is a documentary about an unlikely contestant in an even more unlikely contest. Hissa Hilal is the first woman ever to advance to the finals in Million’s Poet, a televised poetry contest that is to the Persian Gulf what star-search shows are to the West. Millions watch the Emirati reality show as contestants from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states read poems composed for the occasion; an expert panel critiques their rhythm and their themes, and the public votes on winners.

Apparently, the traditional art of Nabati oral poetry is a lively contemporary practice in the Arab-speaking world, but you will have to take that on faith because the German filmmakers Stefanie Brockhaus and Andreas Wolff have bigger issues in mind. As a subject, Hilal, who always appears on camera veiled in a niqab with two small openings for her eyes, is so firm, calm and broadly analytical about her own society that Poetess becomes a documentary about the status of women in Saudi Arabia – and as such it’s a topical centrepiece for the 15th-annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival opening Wednesday in Toronto.

Hilal explains that she is from a Bedouin family who lived a nomadic existence until her grandfather’s children refused to take over his camel herd as he grew older; her family moved into the city when she was a little girl. She now lives what appears to be a very prosperous existence in Riyadh – she is shown clothes shopping with her adult daughters, all of them fully veiled – and can boast that her poetry bought her a house. (Her husband, who can show his face on camera, is also a writer and journalist.)

In the most revealing section of the doc, she explains how Bedouin women lost their freedom of movement. Once they were able to stride through the desert, using their veils to keep out the sand or to cover their faces if a stranger approached, an unusual occurrence in tight-knit communities. Today, the move into the city has made them caged birds, she says, explaining how the Saudi monarchy enacted religious restrictions in the 1970s to pacify fundamentalist political opposition.

Hissa Hilal is the first woman ever to advance to the finals in Million’s Poet.TIFF

For her part, she causes a huge controversy when one of her poems in the contest criticizes religious fatwas and those who try to use Islam to justify violence. She is trolled and threatened as a result and, driving around town with the family chauffeur, she is visibly nervous when someone in a passing car appears to be filming her daughter, who has let her head-covering slip inside the car. Clearly, the restrictions of the long body-hiding abaya and the niqab rankle: Hilal says she would not wear them if she lived abroad.

But she does not want to live abroad; she says she loves Islam and that Saudi Arabia is home.

“When you isolate women you isolate the whole soul of society,” the poet offers, exposing the misogyny of her own culture without rancor. Saudi women will finally be given the right to drive in June; as the authoritarian country contemplates reform of its gender segregation, it would do well to listen to Hilal’s calm criticisms of her own culture. Her voice rings out with courage, reason and, most of all, remarkable forbearance in the face of quotidian discrimination.

The Human Rights Watch Film Festival runs April 18-25 at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox (ff.hrw.org/toronto).