Film review: WADJDA (out in cinemas on 19 July 2013)

On 19 July 2013 the film WADJDA will be released in UK cinemas. WADJDA is a film from the incredible writer & director Haifaa Al-Mansour – the first female filmmaker from Saudi Arabia. Her film was also the first to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia.

wadjda

I was very impressed with the fact that such controversial topic – women in the Arabic culture – was not censored by the local government. It is quite a strong message to the male muslim communities all over the world and more universally to all male dominated societies. I was truly impressed by the courage of the director/producer of this film to have finally talked about what women have to go through in communities were they are not free to express themselves the way they deserve to. I can’t recommend this movie highly enough. Don’t expect a blockbusters, special effects and all the rest of it, but the storytelling and the photography is amazing. The fact that it is in the original language with subtitles does not make the movie difficult to follow at all, but instead it makes more real. Wonderful!

In Saudi Arabia there are many girls like Wadjda who have big dreams, strong characters and so much potential. These girls can, and will, reshape and redefine the nation and also be great examples for women all over the world to do the same.

The film offers a unique insight into Saudi Arabia and speaks of universal themes of hope and perseverance that people of all cultures
can relate to.

Thanks to Haifaa Al-Mansour’s brave heart there’s a voice out there shouting about women’s rights!

Wadjda has been critically acclaimed at film festivals around the world, and it’s now being released in cinemas across the UK on 19th July 2013 – see trailer here:

As well as Haifaa being something of a trailblazer, the film has been commended for its subtle treatment of the issues and obstacles facing women in Saudi Arabia on a daily basis, focusing on a teenager, her school friends, teachers & mother.

The film has also been heralded for its social impact, apparently inspiring more women to take up cycling, something very much frowned upon by the conservative leadership.

SYNOPSIS

WADJDA is a 10-year-old girl living in a suburb of Riyadh, the capital of Saudi
Arabia. Although she lives in a conservative world, Wadjda is fun loving,
entrepreneurial and always pushing the boundaries of what she can get away
with. After a fight with her friend Abdullah, a neighborhood boy she shouldn’t be
playing with, Wadjda sees a beautiful green bicycle for sale. She wants the bicycle
desperately so that she can beat Abdullah in a race. But Wadjda’s mother won’t
allow it, fearing repercussions from a society that sees bicycles as dangerous to a
girl’s virtue. So Wadjda decides to try and raise the money herself.

At first, Wadjda’s mother is too preoccupied with convincing her husband not to
take a second wife to realize what’s going on. And soon enough Wadjda’s plans
are thwarted when she is caught running various schemes at school. Just as she is
losing hope of raising enough money, she hears of a cash prize for a Koran
recitation competition at her school. She devotes herself to the memorization and
recitation of Koranic verses, and her teachers begin to see Wadjda as a model
pious girl. The competition isn‘t going to be easy, especially for a troublemaker like
Wadjda, but she refuses to give in. She is determined to continue fighting for her
dreams…

INTERVIEW WITH Haifaa Al Mansour

You chose to approach a complex theme like the situation of women in Saudi
Arabia through the seemingly simple story of a girl who wants a bike. Why?
I wanted to give the intellectual debate a human face – a story that people can
relate to and understand. The film does not present a big story but a small one, a
story about the emotions of a few main characters, a young girl and her mother,
the lives of these characters within their society. I don‘t think people want to sit
through a film and be lectured to as much as go on a journey that is inspiring and
touching. As simple as the story may seem, I think that more complex themes are
woven into it. It was important to me that the story was an accurate portrayal of
the situation of women in Saudi Arabia, and that the characters were believable
as ordinary people who have to manoeuver through the system the only way they
know how.

In Conversation with Haifaa Al Mansour

There are several strong female characters – Wadjda herself, her mother, the
school principal… Is WADJDA a women‘s film?

Maybe it is a women‘s film! But I really didn‘t intend it that way. I wanted to make
a film about things I know and experienced. A story that spoke to my experiences,
but also to average Saudis. It was important for me that the male characters in the
film were not portrayed just as simple stereotypes or villains. Both the men and the
women in the film are in the same boat, both pressured by the system to act and
behave in certain ways, and then forced to deal with the system’s consequences
for whatever action they take. I do really like the scenes of the mother and the
daughter together, and I think that a lot of love and emotion comes through in
their relationship, when they are cooking or singing together, there is something
very beautiful about it.

Is the character of Wadjda inspired by your own childhood, are there any
autobiographical elements to this story?

Well, I come from a very supportive and liberal family. I remember when I was a kid
my father took me along with my brothers to get bicycles and I chose a green
one. I am extremely lucky to have a father who wanted me to feel dignified as a
woman, but it was definitely a different story for my classmates and friends who
would have never even dreamed of asking for a bicycle. But I think the heart of
the story is something anyone can relate to, which is the idea of being labeled
different or deviant for wanting something outside of what is traditionally
considered acceptable. The Saudi culture can be especially brutal and
unforgiving to people who fall out of step with the society, so there is a real fear of
being labeled an outcast. So in some ways, the story is part of my life and the
things I encountered in my life. A lot of my experiences, along with those of my
friends and family, are reflected in the film in some way – they didn’t just come
from a concept in my mind.

Growing up in a country with no movie theaters, how did you discover cinema
and decide to pursue it as a mode of expression and a career path?

I grew up in a small town in Saudi Arabia. I don’t want to make it sound like we
were totally isolated from the outside world, but we weren’t exactly jet-setting
around either. Although my parents were well traveled, we only took a few
regional trips while I was growing up. All of my young life was centered around our
town. The concept of the big world ended at the cities a few hours away. The
world beyond that seemed very far away and out of reach. I always read books
and watched films and wanted to be a part of the bigger world somehow. Saudi
Arabia is a country without movie theaters and bans cinema, but my father made
film accessible to us and we had family nights where we would all watch films
together. I loved films so much, but I never thought I would be a filmmaker, let
alone the first female filmmaker in Saudi Arabia.

How did you cast your actors?

In a place as conservative as Saudi Arabia it is hard to find women and young girls
who are willing to appear on camera and in public. That obstacle was only
compounded by the fact that we don‘t have a local film industry or infrastructure
to support the process. Open casting calls for example do not exist, so it took a
while to figure out how to go about it. Waad came to one of the sessions we set
up in Riyadh and I could see that she already had the look and attitude for the
part. All the girls that we had seen before her did not have the spirit that was
needed; they were either too sweet or not cheeky enough. And suddenly Waad
appeared, with her headphones on her head, wearing jeans and with tattoos on
her hands. I was also looking for a girl that has a nice voice to be able to sing with
her mother, memorize and chant the Koran, so a good voice was a necessary
requirement, and Waad has a very beautiful and sweet voice. I had seen a lot of
Reem Abdulla‘s work in television so I always thought she would be a good fit for
the mother‘s role. She did a great job of adjusting from TV to film acting, and I think
she turned in a powerful performance.

What was it like for you as woman to direct a movie in Riyadh?

Challenging and extremely rewarding at the same time. Every step was difficult
and it was quite an adventure. I occasionally had to run and hide in the
production van in some of the more conservative areas where people would have
disapproved of a woman director mixing professionally with all the men on set.
Sometimes I tried to direct via walkie-talkie from the van, but I always got frustrated
and came out to do it in person. We had a few instances of people voicing their
displeasure with what we were doing, but nothing too disruptive. We had all of the
proper permits and permissions so overall it went relatively smoothly.

How are you perceived in Saudi Arabia and the Arab world? Are you considered
an exception? A pariah? A pioneer?

I guess I can sometimes be viewed as a polarizing figure, as some people think the
idea of a woman making films or working is media is controversial. But it is definitely
not my intention to offend anyone. I don’t believe in stirring up trouble for its own
sake, I just think we should be working to figure out how to incorporate inevitable
change and modernization into our culture in a reasonable way. Of course death
threats and the like can be scary, but we can’t let extremists affect the work we
do and the goals we have to develop our country.

I hope I have made a film that is close to the lives of Saudi women and inspires
and strengthens them to challenge the very complicated social and political
encumbrances they are surrounded by. Although it is hard to deconstruct the
deeply rooted traditions that deny women a dignified existence, especially since
they are mixed with narrow interpretations of religion, it is a purpose that is worth
striving for.

What is the current situation for Saudi women who have creative or artistic
aspirations?

I am so impressed with all of the young women I meet in Saudi Arabia now and
know that they are growing up in a different era than I did, with so many more
opportunities. I want to help provide a platform for their unheard voices and help
them tell their stories to the world. It is so hard for women to be themselves. If they
act outside of accepted norms they are considered “controversial” anywhere in
the world, let alone in a conservative and a very socially strict place like Saudi
Arabia. Women are always expected to be a certain way and whenever they
break away from that, they are usually labeled and stigmatized. I hope my films will
help some of them find the courage to take risks and talk about the issues that are
important to them.

Haifaa Al Mansour | Biography

Haifaa Al Mansour is the first female filmmaker in Saudi Arabia and is regarded as
one of the most significant cinematic figures in the Kingdom. She finished her
bachelor’s degree in Literature at the American University in Cairo and completed
a Master’s degree in Directing and Film Studies from the University of Sydney. The
success of her three short films, as well as the international acclaim of her award-winning
2005 documentary Women Without Shadows, influenced a whole new
wave of Saudi filmmakers and made the issue of opening cinemas in the Kingdom
a front-page discussion. Within the Kingdom her work is both praised and vilified for
encouraging discussion on topics generally considered taboo, like tolerance, the
dangers of orthodoxy, and the need for Saudis to take a critical look at their
traditional and restrictive culture.

Through both her films and her work in television and print media Al Mansour is
famous for penetrating the wall of silence surrounding the sequestered lives of
Saudi women and providing a platform for their unheard voices.

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