When rebellion is a bicycle [The Daily Star, Beirut, Lebanon]By Jim Quilty, The Daily Star, Beirut, LebanonMcClatchy-Tribune Information Services
Dec. 15--DUBAI -- There is an intriguing irony about "Wadjda." The feature film debut of Saudi writer-director Haifaa al-Mansour tells the story of Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), a 10-year-old girl growing up in contemporary Riyadh. Surrounded by pervasive demands from family members and teachers that she shun contact with boys who aren't relatives and various symptoms of popular culture -- from bracelets in the local football teams' colors to Western pop music -- Wadjda is a Converse-wearing, alternative music devotee who wants a bike.
She doesn't need it for a job. She wants to be able to hang out with her pal Abdullah on equal terms. She never considers thieving a bicycle, but for various reasons it's no simple matter to drop round the shop to buy one.
Like so many coming-of-age films, Mansour's story is about the conflict between individualism and the pressure to conform to group norms.
Even before its world premiere at the Venice film festival in August, "Wadjda" had generated a fair bit of media buzz. To find filmmakers from a country without cinemas -- and therefore no cinema culture -- is rare. Meeting women filmmakers from Saudi Arabia, from Riyadh no less, is nothing short of exotic. Indeed, between Mansour and Ahd Kamel (the third female lead, herself a filmmaker) "Wadjda" features the work of the country's two most prominent women cineastes.
That's the irony. This film about restrictive group identities and their impact on individual women has attracted attention precisely because the filmmaker is "Saudi" and a "woman." Yet the film itself is worthy of scrutiny, both for itself and what it suggests about the possibilities international co-production still offer Arab filmmaking talent.
It will be easier to appreciate Mansour's film now that "Wadjda" has had its Middle East premiere at the Dubai International Film Festival, where it is screening in the Muhr Arab Feature competition.
Though Arab film critics can be unforgiving in their assessment of what "is" and "is not" cinema, it is broadly accepted that the first responsibility of filmmakers, particularly those from regions where there is little domestic cinema production, is to tell local stories.
Disagreement springs from how these "local stories" are conceived and told. Filmmakers differ about whether stories should be told in individualistic, existential terms or draw upon political and geopolitical aspects of identity. In the telling, Arab filmmakers tend to employ one of three cinematic dialects. One is heavily influenced by European art house tradition. Another is a hybrid of social realist/art house and commercial genre convention. A third speaks the language of low-budget popular cinema, resembling a more sophisticated version of local television production.
"Wadjda" has an identity-centered story. As it pauses over the discrete features of women's lives in Saudi Arabia, the film operates like a vehicle to correct certain foreign misrepresentations of the country.
The most obvious of these is that Saudi women are all uniformly oppressed and/or compliant to Hanbali patriarchy.
Wadjda is not alone in her efforts to shrug off social convention. Singing is frowned upon, and her teacher Ms. Hussa (Ahd Kamel) remarks that "a woman's voice is her nakedness." Yet Wadjda's mother (Reem Abdallah) is shown to have a pleasant singing voice, at least in the kitchen.
Mom does suffer some uncertainty, though not because of Islam as such. Having nearly died giving birth to her daughter, she was advised to bear no more children, yet she hasn't yet borne her husband (Sultan Alassaf) the son he, and the rest of society, expect.
Nor is Wadjda alone in not shunning boys. However when Abir, one of the older girls at school, is found to have been spending time with a young man, she is pulled out of school and kept at home until she can be married.
At the other extreme, one of Wadjda's 10-year-old classmates is married to a man of 20.
The other cliche the story seems to be addressing is the assumption that every last Saudi citizen is wealthy.
In the one scene in which he appears in work clothes, it looks as though the father works as a mechanic, or else in some hands-on oil-industry labor.
Though mom employs a South Asian driver, it's a matter of need rather than luxury, as she needs an hour to commute to her school. One feature of the plot is that the driver is becoming too expensive for her, and the want of spare money is one of the reasons Wadjda can't have a bike.
Though it has a strong sociological flavor, Mansour's film doesn't discuss the country's underclass as such, a segment of which (as recent reportage suggests) is Shiite. Nor are such discussions germane to Wadjda's story.
Probably the single strongest element in the writing is Mansour's decision to have the industrious Wadjda enter an all-girl's Quran-recitation contest, whose top prize would win her the bike-purchasing money she needs.
Though she's not an energetic student of Islam, Wadjda finds ways to greatly improve her proficiency and, in the film's climactic moment, demonstrate that people can have ulterior motives for cultivating and representing the appearance of piety.
Cinema isn't just writing, but a thing of light and image.
In previous interviews, Mansour (who studied cinema in Australia) has discussed how one of the impediments to making world-class cinema in Saudi Arabia is the want of cinemas -- which means that the society's audio-visual culture is, by default, that of television.
"Wadjda" benefits in no small part from the committed German producer and production team that drove the project forward, working with Mansour's well-connected local producer to secure the budget, then mobilizing the talent needed to make the film a work of cinema.
The film's cinematic shortcomings -- individual acting performances, for instance -- may stem from the relatively shallow pool of local non-television talent from which she had to draw.
One of the local resources that Mansour was able to draw upon, which gives this film legs and suggests there might be a future for Saudi film production, is the star of the show.
Waad Mohammed's on-screen presence manages to be luminous and warm without collapsing into the gurning, mawkish sentimentality of so many child performances. She plays no small role in bringing Mansour's character to life in a way that will warm a heart or two without setting eyes rolling.
The Dubai International Film Festival continues until Dec. 16. For more information see http://www.dubaifilmfest.com.
(c)2012 The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
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