Reel Life: Women in the Dunes

Wadjda opened at the Venice Film Festival and became Saudi Arabia’s first ever submission for the best foreign language film Oscar

A still from 'Wdjda'
A still from 'Wdjda'
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Namrata Joshi

The first thing that Saudi Arabian filmmaker Haifaa al-Monsour said on being honoured at the historic first edition of the Red Sea International Film Festival was that tears were welling up in her eyes. She spoke about how, forget making films, even watching them was a dream when she was growing up during the 35 odd years (1983-2018) that cinema was banned in the country.

“That was a Saudi Arabia in which women and arts and culture were marginalised. Now they are at the core,” she said of the festival and the Saudi society, supposedly in the throes of a change.

Making films gave her voice and being honoured was a personal acknowledgement for her as much as an important message sent out to women at large: “Never be afraid. We are coming tough and strong.”

Tough and strong is how one would choose to describe the 10-year-old protagonist in Haifaa’s debut feature, Wadjda (2012), a film I decided to revisit while attending the festival in Jeddah. With her focus on little Wadjda, Haifaa manages to do more: she presents a panoramic view of the women’s reality in Riyadh back in the 2000.

On the one hand is the girl’s school, the fellow students and teachers, on the other is the mother, family, home, friends and neighbourhood. In all these spaces the traditional, conservative, patriarchal perspectives dominate, nudged gently by the new challengers, like Wadjda, a tom boy like figure who dreams of buying a green bicycle and whiz away on it, racing with her friend Abdullah and beating him at it. But will she be allowed to do something that is otherwise not permissible for women?

Haifaa al-Monsour
Haifaa al-Monsour

Wadjda is the gentle but firm rebel—mixing tapes of love songs, braiding bracelets of football teams, playing cupid for lovers. And all the while collecting money to be able to buy the SAR 800 worth of bike. Though her heart may not be in it, she is willing to compete in a Quran recitation competition only to be able to win the prize amount and use it to funs her passion.

It’s a straight and simple tale that tells a lot by saying very little. Wadjda’s quest for the bike offers Haifaa a mode to present various compelling vignettes. The authoritarian school principal who might rule by the book but has a dark secret of her own. Wadjda’s own mother who is either at the mercy of a fickle driver to transport her to work or her husband at home; an otherwise loving father to Wadjda—who is on the verge of remarrying to be able to get male heir even as Wadjda wants to carve her own name on the family tree, something forbidden for women.

In the midst of all this are fundamentalist concepts—women should not laugh out loud, a woman’s voice is her nakedness and it should not be heard by men, the head scarf and abaya should hold centrality in a woman’s wardrobe even though they may wear red dresses and dream of short hair in the privacy of their homes. And then there are girls who haven’t even reached their teens, married off to men in their twenties.

But all is not lost. It’s a society where the envelope is being pushed without an appearance of it. There are male allies—a shopkeeper who holds on to the bike, refusing to sell it so that Wadjda can have a go at it. There’s little Abdullah, always loaning his own bike so that Wadjda can learn to ride, without the aid of the training wheels at that.

Most of all there is the sorority of women. The mother who might get exasperated at her daughter’s wayward ways but eventually decides to let go of the red dress to woo her husband and buy a bicycle to fuel her daughter’s dreams and desires. And the eventual escape to freedom in the future from the limited and limiting present.

The first feature film to be made by a Saudi woman filmmaker and to have been shot entirely in the country, Wadjda is an international co-production that took over five years to make because of the financial crunch and the red tapes involved in getting shooting permissions. Doffing its hat to Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, Jafar Panahi’s Offside and Francois Truffaut’s 400 Blows, Wadjda opened at the Venice Film Festival and became Saudi Arabia’s first ever submission for the best foreign language film Oscar.

Haifaa has since gone on to make several other films—Mary Shelley, Nappily Ever After and The Perfect Candidate. From being the only woman Saudi filmmaker, she now has more young ladies giving her company. A bunch of them have their works featured in the ongoing festival. What started in 2012 with this single film could well turn out to be a cinema movement. An escalation and push in just the right direction.

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