Saturday, September 1, 2012

Saudi Arabia Opens the Door - WADJDA

Waad Mohammed & Haifaa Al Mansour
(Venice, Italy) It was history-in-the-making at yesterday's official public screening of WADJDA, a film shot by Saudi Arabia's first female director, Haifaa Al Mansour. It is also the first full-length feature ever filmed entirely inside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia -- a feat even more fantastic considering that there are no movie theaters allowed inside Saudi Arabia.

When the movie finished, the entire audience rose to its feet and gave WADJDA a long, sincere standing ovation. We clapped because the movie melted our hearts, and its young star, Waad Mohammed warmed our souls. It is a simple story about a spunky girl who wants a bicycle. But this is Saudi Arabia where grown woman are not allowed to drive cars and little girls are not supposed to ride bikes "because they won't be able to have children."

If you are a regular reader of Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog, you will know I have been following the progress of Saudi Arabian women ever since I went to the Eurogulf Forum on October 16-18, 2008, almost four years ago, and heard, with my own ears, HRH Prince Turki Al-Faisal and HRH Prince Faisal Bin Salman say they were going to give women more freedom.

Then, in 2011, I met Shaida Alem and Raja Alem, two Saudi Arabian sisters from Mecca who were representing their kingdom for the La Biennale International Art Festival. You can read my June 2, 2011 post about that encounter, below:

ILLUMInations - 54 Venice International Art Festival


Now, in 2012, we have Haifaa Al Mansour directing Saudi Arabia's first full-length feature film, with Prince Al-Waleed Bin Tal given prominent thanks in the closing credits. It makes me think that what the Princes said back in 2008 was sincere -- since it is actually happening -- and adds credibility to everything else they said, too. You can read my post of October 22, 2008, below:

Men Like Gods


WADJDA was shot in the city of Riyadh with both a German and Saudi Arabian crew. Since a full-length feature had never been shot before in the kingdom, and since there are no movie theaters, Saudi Arabian crews were familiar with TV, not movies. In addition, men and women are not allowed to co-exist on the same street. A woman working out on the street with men, let alone directing them in a film production, was such anomaly that occasionally Haifaa had to dash into the production van and hide.

Reem Abdullah
It was fascinating to watch every-day Saudi Arabian life as depicted in the film. Wadjda's mother, called Mother, played by the beautiful Reem Abdullah, tosses on a burqa every time she goes out the door, yet buys a sexy red dress as part of a plot to seduce her own husband back to the family house. She is deeply in love with her husband, the father of Wadjda, called Father, who rarely comes home. When he does, she cooks him and his friends dinner, places the tray on the floor, and knocks on the closed dining-room door to indicate it's ready. She and Wadjda eat in the kitchen. Mother cannot provide Father with a son, and her mother-in-law is shopping around for a second wife. Father does not particularly want another wife, nor does he want the expense of another household, and he does love Wadjda and her mother, but apparently does not have the will to resist his own mother and the culture in which he lives.

Haiffa Al Mansour
It often seems that the only way to get society to listen to the female voice is through the mouth of a girl. The more I think about this film, the more brilliant I think it is. Haifaa Al Mansour, who stopped working at an oil company at age 30 to pursue her dream of becoming a director, got her message across with simplicity and a touch of genius.

Wadjda is a spirited 10-year-old girl living in a suburb of Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. She listens to pop music, wears jeans and sneakers beneath her black robe -- since she has not yet reached puberty, she does not wear a burqa. She has a warm relationship with her mother, who threatens to "marry her off" every time Wadjda misbehaves. She wants a bicycle so she can race Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), her best friend, even though he is a boy and they are not supposed to play together. She makes bracelets and sells them to her classmates to earn money, and runs illicit errands for the older girls at her school, but the new green bike she has her eye on costs 800 riyals, or about $213, and she isn't even close.  

Wadjda's main nemesis is the headmistress at school, Hussa (Ahd), a sexy woman who is determined to break Wadjda's rebellious free spirit. In one of the film's most revealing lines, Hussa says, "You remind me of myself." Instead of encouraging Wadjda's independence, Hussa tries time and again to force Wadjda to conform, and each time Wadjda cleverly outmaneuvers her. When a Koran contest with 1000 riyal prize is announced, Wadjda decides to get religion, and apologizes to Hussa, allowing the shrew to think she has triumphed.

In one poignant scene, the girls in Wadjda's religion class sit on the floor looking at wedding photos, brought to school by a pudgy teen. The teacher arrives, and says that everyone knows that photos aren't allowed. Then she asks, kindly, if the girl who brought them had gotten married, and the girl, who looks to be about 14-years-old, says yes. The teacher asks how old her husband is, and the girl replies, softly, "Twenty." Suddenly, earlier threats by Mother to marry off Wadjda for misbehaving take on a whole new texture.

When asked about distribution in Saudi Arabia, Rotana Studios, which is owned by Prince Al-Waleed Bin Tal, said that they can broadcast on their own television network -- which happens to be the biggest in the Middle East, and distribute it on DVD. The entire production is a smorgasbord of international cooperation, with Razor Film from Germany producing -- both Roman Paul and Gerhard Meixner were here -- in fact, it was their ten-year anniversary.

It was exciting to get a peek into the Saudi Kingdom, and a smart move on the part of certain enlightened Princes to tap into a natural resource more precious than oil: Saudi Arabian women.

Ciao from Venezia,
Cat
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog


1 comment:

  1. It was history-in-the-making at yesterday's official public screening of WADJDA, a film shot by Saudi Arabia's first female director, Haifaa Al Mansour. It is also the first full-length feature ever filmed entirely inside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia -- a feat even more fantastic considering that there are no movie theaters allowed inside Saudi Arabia.

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