Hey so I finally got to go and see a female-directed film in an actual cinema – first one this year! (To be fair to the cinema people there have been a few other films showing that had female directors but for various reasons I couldn’t make the screenings – although actually these films all had limited runs – they were part of festivals or were one night only screenings so maybe I don’t have to be fair, I’m still waiting for the day when films with female directors come out in mainstream cinemas and run for weeks at a time)
Anyway, back to the matter at hand. It is perhaps fitting that the first film I get to see in a cinema as part of this project comes from a country that has no cinemas: Saudi Arabia.
Wadjda is the first feature film ever shot in Saudi Arabia, and it was directed and written by Haiffa Al-Mansour, herself a Saudi native who grew up in a small town very similar to the one the film is based on. The film is gentle, honest and genuine. It is a straight up critique of the difficulties of life in a society with strict segregations and social expectations for women.
In interviews about the film Haiffa says life for women in these situations can be very heavy, but she did not want to make a heavy film. She wanted to make a film that showed women not as victims but as pro-active, bringing about the change around them.
She says that the bicycle that Wadjda so desperately covets in the film is a symbol of this movement, of acceleration, of “being on top of one’s destiny”. And reminds us that in the western world too, there is a great connection between the bicycle and women’s rights – bicycles gave women an ability to move through the world in ways they had not before, opening up opportunities for things like employment, education, and even changing the way women dress.
Al-Mansour was keen to explore the fact that Saudi society is really two worlds: the public and the private. In public the light is bright, the camera lens is often wide. There are few crowds, the streets are mostly empty except for boys Wadjda’s age and sleazy old constructions workers who cat call at her. This public world is a world with no touching, a world of harsh sun and square buildings and clean walls in mute colours.
Inside, Wadjda’s world is very different; it is cluttered and colourful, her mother sings and hugs her, her father plays loud video games slumped in front of the TV. But there are also sad secrets in the private world, Wadjda’s parents fight about having a son, Wadjda’s mother wants her to stop getting into so much trouble.
However Wadjda is young and she has not yet learnt to segregate this private world of loudness and music and bric-a-brac with the public world’s requirements of stillness and silence for girls. So she’s constantly running into trouble because she’s the one bringing the private world out into the public, she makes bracelets and sells them, she wears sneakers and jeans under her black robes, her head scarf is constantly flying off, falling off, in one scene even taken off her by her neighbour-hood friend. He peels off on a bicycle with her scarf and she shouts after him ‘If I had a bike I could beat you’. The inspiration for the entire story: a moment of exposure, a moment of transgression.
Haiffa Al-Mansour is part of a generation of Saudi Arabians who have been educated in the West and her film is fascinated by the clash of Saudi tradition versus western ideals, easily accessible in a wealthy country like Saudi Arabia where every kid has an ipad or a computer and access to western movies, music and computer games. In some ways, it did feel like a slightly naïve exploration of western cultural imperialism – Wadjda listens to western music and plays western video games. Perhaps this is because it is through the eyes of a ten year old girl, but the film does tend to portray the west and western things as a kind of ‘golden land’, without examining the complexities of say, western media and music and they way that they, in and of themselves often reinforce stereotypes and depict women and minorities in ways that diminish them. Although, having said that, there are a few scenes in the film where her mother straightens her hair rather than letting it curl naturally – something that subtly comes from the west and that obsession with straight hair that automatically others of women of colour and their naturally curly hair (Chris Rock’s documentary “Good Hair” is a fantastic watch to learn more about that process if anyone is interested)
And then again, maybe in order to get the point of critiquing the subtle or less institutionalized discrimination that continues here in places like Australia (things like, only one woman in Cabinet in Federal Government for example), you need to at first question the overt barriers that are part of everyday life in Saudi Arabia such as the ban on women driving, something depicted in the movie with an interesting addition of class and cultural clash as well. The man hired to drive Wadjda’s mother is clearly either from a lower class or a different tribe where he does not speak their language, and there is constant clash between him and Wadjda in particular who insults him, calls him late, lazy and so on. This only adds to the tension created by the entire situation where her mother is not allowed to drive, but needs to work in order to survive and so has to be driven every day to her job which is a 3 hour commute away.
Haiffa Al-Mansour says that she did not want to make an angry movie. And in fact, this movie is actually very light-hearted and very lovely. It’s a coming of age story with a firecracker main character, she’s a hustler who wants to make money any way she can so she can just get that bike. And it’s also a little bit of a childhood love story; Wadjda’s desire for a bike is literally inspired by the boy next door and the scenes between them are charming and funny, moving between casual teasing, to a blossoming friendship and even a little bit of innocent romance.
It’s a great movie and definitely worth a watch, if it’s still on at your local cinema, or if it pops up in your local DVD store I say go for it!