Undoubtedly one of the most important global films of the last twelve months, Wadjda is highly entertaining and very well-made but also raises a number of questions for film culture and film studies.
Viewed simply as a ‘festival film’ that has ‘broken out’ into wider distribution, Wadjda comes across as a familiar feelgood narrative utilising a neo-realist approach – i.e. taking a simple narrative premise familiar to audiences the world over and locating it in a recognisable ‘real world’ setting. The writer-director is also canny enough to pick up on the success of other recent films in terms of specific story elements. Wadjda is a ten (or possibly twelve) year-old girl who decides that the only way to compete with her neighbour Abdullah is to get hold of a bicycle and race him. Spotting a new bicycle being delivered to a local store in her neighbourhood in the Saudi capital Riyadh she quickly determines that she must somehow acquire the 800 ryals (about £140 or $215) to buy it. Although her family is relatively wealthy, problems between her parents means that they are unlikely to produce the money for her, so she ends up entering a ‘religious competition’ at school in the hope of winning the prize which would be just enough for the purchase. Even though she has no obvious interest in her religion she applies herself to learning to read and recite sura (chapters) of the Koran.
Any story about young people and bicycles has already got a headstart on the opposition. The bicycle offers that sense of freedom for a young person without the means to ride taxis (Riyadh being seemingly without public transport). There are few scenes in cinema as liberating as those featuring boys and girls on bicycles, whether they are Truffaut’s Les Mistons, the messenger in Beijing Bicycle or the Dardennes Brothers’ Kid With a Bike. Wadjda has the two essential ingredients to exploit the the story potential – a winning performance by Waad Mohammed as the girl and a talented creative team with a skilled crew to fully utilise the location and settings. Writer-director Haifaa Al-Mansour then fills out the story with two main sub-plots that arguably act metaphorically to reveal the social conditions and opportunities that face Wadjda (and all other Saudi girls) in the future.
The first of the two sub-plots involves Wadjda’s mother Reema who was married as a schoolgirl but whose husband is now looking for a second wife because Reema is unable to provide him with a son. At the same time, Reema faces problems as a working woman (in a society where women are not supposed to drive cars or be ‘exposed’ to men outside the home). The second sub-plot involves Ms Mussa, the principal of the school, an attractive younger woman (just like Reema) who appears to be a hard disciplinarian with a softer interior and who at one point tells Wadjda that she reminds her of her younger self.
The combination of the three narratives is reminiscent of another film featuring a young woman and a bicycle – Marziyeh Meshkini’s The Day I Became a Woman (Iran 2000). The school/home axis also refers to the first half of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (France/US 2006). These are both films featuring girls and women growing up in Iran after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Iran is not an Arab country but girls and women in Saudi Arabia face similar problems created by the restrictions of a highly conservative form of Islam. Herein lies the problem for Western film critics and scholars who have little exposure to the range of Arab film production. Popular Arab films from Egypt are not easily accessible. The films that do reach the West from Lebanon and Palestine often have different concerns with the effects of war and occupation often displacing the kinds of cultural issues central to Wadjda. Missing also is production coming from the affluent Gulf States where film culture in terms of consumption of mainly American movies in new multiplexes is growing quickly.
The result is that a film like Wadjda is singled out and praised as the first Saudi feature film – and a notable film by an Arab woman. The film narrative is then examined primarily in terms of its resistance to the representation of women in Saudi Arabian society. My feeling is that this in fact misrepresents the film itself and the filmmaker – who carries ‘the burden of representation’, being expected to fulfil the role assigned to her by Western media. Wadjda is properly described as a global film. Ironically, its Saudi base is the media company Rotana, arguably the biggest media corporation in the Middle East, which is majority owned by Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal with an 18% stake held by News Corporation. Rotana is the biggest music company in the region and also produces television series for the Arab world. Reem Abdullah who plays the mother is a leading star of Saudi television. The film is officially a Saudi-German co-production. The department heads and the producers are from the German industry. Haifaa Al Mansour herself was born in Saudi Arabia but educated at the American University in Cairo and then completed a Masters in Film at the University of Sydney. She now lives in Bahrain. This background is important in placing the film’s production in context. It does mean that there is a contradiction between the image of the ‘guerilla filmmaker’ who had to hide from view as she directed scenes on the streets of Riyadh (so as not to offend religious sensibilities) and a production backed by one of the most powerful media interests in the region.
Much of the coverage of the film’s appearance at festivals and now on release in the West focuses on the idea that this is the first film to be shot in Saudi Arabia. The fact that it was directed by a woman is then taken to be even more astounding. My point here is not intended as an attempt to downgrade the achievement of the director, but instead to expose the rather simplistic view of film and TV in the region as taken by many in the West. I’m not sure if the film is genuinely a ‘first’. I’ve seen claims that as many as 300 films have been identified in some way with Saudi Arabia and in his useful Guardian piece, Phil Hoad cites two recent examples. Since the 1980s cinemas have been banned in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia but they existed for a shortish period before the 1980s and cinema is accessible via satellite and DVD in homes – or over the border in the Emirates or Qatar. In 2009 Rotana did manage to screen one of their films in several Saudi cities. Does it really matter where the film is shot, who financed it or whether it is a co-production? The important point, as Hoad insists, is for Arab filmmakers generally and Saudis in particular, to create stories about themselves and to circulate them so that they can contribute to the creation of identities for Arabs and by Arabs – rather than through a lens controlled by Hollywood studios or constructed by Western critics.
Haifaa Al Mansour has created an entertaining and engaging story which contributes towards the ongoing debate about how women can gain more control over their lives under a regime informed by conservative religious interests. In this sense, the film is similar to those family melodramas that have delved into the changing mores of societies in Asia as well as Europe and the Americas. Here’s the director in the Press Notes commenting on the gender representations:
“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.”
This is certainly how I read the film. The performances are very good and the narrative is very accessible. I hope it gets the wider audiences it deserves. In the UK it is still showing in some cinemas and will appear on DVD in January 2014. Here’s an extract on the Doha Film Institute site:
And here are some useful links:
This is a documentary film about ‘the catastrophe’ that befell the Palestinian people in 1948. It traces the history of the colonial policies and actions that led to their expulsion from their homeland. It was made by Palestinian filmmaker and journalist Rawan Damen in 2008 and transmitted on the Al Jazeera Arabic network. Now an English-Language version is being transmitted on their English Television network [Freeview 83 in the UK, with other language versions also available]. It runs for 200 minutes and is going out in four parts. Two episodes have already been transmitted but are being repeated.
Rawan Damen’s film is a fairly conventional television documentary using ‘talking heads’ and film and photographs. Much of the material and comment has been available in academic and historical publication. But now it is being presented in a fairly popular medium and it has the advantage of using visual material, which brings an increased power to the story.
The film starts with the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt, a key event that was analysed by the Palestinian writer Edward Said in his great work Orientalism. The first two episodes address the British occupation and Mandate of Palestine following the First World War. In was in that conflict that the new Zionist Movement achieved its coup of the Balfour Declaration – the British support for a Jewish State was seen as a way of ensuring the British presence and it’s interests across the Middle East.
It is difficult to decide which was more objectionable: the British colonial manipulation of a people and its lands, or the Machiavellian manoeuvrings of the Zionist in pursuit of a ‘Greater Israel’. Certainly the policies and practices of each have much in common. The British Mandate saw the use of house arrests and executions, concentration camps, house demolitions, the exiling of leaders and the harassment and dissolution of Palestinian institutions. Just as British laws from the Mandate still serve the Zionist State, so do the brutal methods pioneered by the British.
Episode two focuses on the Palestinian resistance and revolution from 1936 to 1939. This is a part of the tale which gives lie to Zionist clams of ’a land without people'; and claims that a Palestinian nation did not exist. It also highlights the weakness and limitations of the Palestinian and Arab official leaders. Their failings were to be an important aid to the Zionist take-over in 1948. The other was the development of the Zionist military forces, which were happy to use actions now loudly condemned as ‘terrorism’ by Israel.
Rawan Damen has added an impressive range of commentators, including both Palestinian and Israeli historians, and ordinary Palestinians including refugees from Al-Nakba. This and the impressive array of actual film from the period really create its effect. There has been excellent research to retrieve film that has not been seen for a long time, including material in the British Archives.
This is both an important documentary film and contribution to the struggles of the Palestinian people. Fortunately Al Jazeera tend to repeat their programme several times. So it will be possible to catch up with episodes one and two if you missed them. Episode three will take us to the key year of 1948. Definitely tune into Al Jazeera - the channel is worth watching for a different slant on the news.
[Note that their transmission times are given in GMT not in British Summer Time],
Five Broken Cameras is an engaging and well-made documentary. It’s affective in making us feel the emotions of the filmmaker who was compelled to complete it and it deserves the praise it has received and the audience interest it has attracted. The events it portrays are shocking and in a civilised world they would be one of the catalysts for change. But we don’t live in a civilised world and as yet there seems little sign that enough people in a position to change things have the courage to carry out changes.
Five Broken Cameras is a certain kind of documentary and that may also be part of the problem – though it shouldn’t necessarily be so. I’ll try to explain what I mean. The cameras of the title were each used by a Palestinian farmer to document the theft of his land by Israeli settlers illegally occupying territory in the West Bank to the west of Ramallah from 2005 onwards. The film doesn’t attempt to fill in all the history or to run through all the questions surrounding the Occupation of Palestine and the building of settlements which contravene international law as well as being (as in this case) illegal under Israeli law. Instead, it appeals directly to the viewer in terms of the obvious suffering of the Palestinians when they try to resist the bulldozers which uproot their olive trees and the Israeli soldiers and police who attack them with tear gas, arrest them and occasionally kill them during attempts to squash their protests.
Emad Burnat, the farmer at the centre of the film and the co-director (as well as the principal cinematographer, using the five cameras) was himself wounded and arrested and recorded the arrest of each of his brothers and the death of one of his comrades in the village during their protests. The co-director, writer and co-editor of the film is Guy Davidi, an Israeli filmmaker who trained partly in Paris and who lived in the Palestinian village of Bil’in for three months in 2005 when Emad began filming. But just as the film doesn’t elaborate on the history and politics of the situation, it also doesn’t explain/explore the Israeli support for the village protests – i.e. the Israeli activists who fight against the Occupation. They are shown and occasionally referenced but not in any detail. The same goes for the international supporters who travelled out to the West Bank to show solidarity. I’m not suggesting that there is anything sinister in this, but that it adds to the overall feeling that this is a very ‘personal’ film about a man and five cameras (each of which is damaged during the filming or deliberately smashed by Israeli soldiers). I suspect that this ‘personal’ approach has helped the film reach a wider audience, especially in North America, and it has been nominated for ‘Best Documentary Feature’ at the 2013 Oscars. What is slightly sinister is the film’s depiction of the settlers – Orthodox Jews who are perhaps the least ‘humanised’ by the camera’s gaze. The Israeli settlers seen here trouble me deeply – I can’t think of anything about them that would attract my sympathy – but I don’t want to feel that way about anybody and I wonder if the filmmakers’ decision not to invite them to speak or not to attempt to present their perspective, somehow damages the strength of the film’s polemic. I’m not asking for ‘balance’ – the settlers are in the wrong, that’s the starting point. But we’ve got to try to treat them like human beings, otherwise they are trapped behind their fences in the same way that they have deliberately put the Palestinians behind a fence/wall.
Emad states at the beginning of the film that he is a ‘fella’ – a peasant attached to his land. The rough land which supports only olive trees and a few sheep/goats has been the property of the families in the village since before anyone can remember. The sight of bulldozers digging up the trees or the sheer vandalism of setting the trees on fire, even before the barbed wire has staked out the land grab by the settlers, is contrasted with the almost comical tree-hugging of one of the villagers. This is one of the most affecting shots in the film. The destruction of Palestinian olive groves is perhaps the most powerful symbol of the Occupation alongside the Dividing Wall.
The one absolute plus of the film is that it celebrates the resistance over five years of the whole community in Bil’in. I’m sure that’s what stayed with the sizeable audience in the cinema. I hope the film wins the Oscar, if only because that will help more people to see the film. The more exposure that these stories get, the more chance we have of putting pressure on the Israeli government. There is one scene in the film in which we watch someone from the Israeli security forces deliberately shoot a protestor in the leg from only a few yards away. I wonder if the offender was brought to justice?
By the time of my third film of the day, I was very tired and this was a demanding film in the circumstances. This interesting review from Cine-Vue suggests that the film was well-chosen as part of the ‘Debate’ strand of the festival (a slide on-screen announces this after you’ve sat through the rather tedious festival filmed introduction sequence of a young woman watching films and stuffing herself with popcorn). I’m not sure that simply giving us ‘Debate’ – almost as a command – works for me, but having an Algerian filmmaker or critic present to introduce the film would have been good. LFF is actually quite good at this kind of thing.
Merzak Allouache is a veteran Algerian director (born in 1944) and I remember with pleasure his 1996 film Salut Cousin! about a North African visitor’s sometimes comic adventures in Paris while staying with his cousin. This new film is very different. A statement during the credits tells us that a ‘Repentant’ is the official term used by the Algerian authorities for ex-soldiers from the Islamist guerrilla groups who fought in the Algerian Civil War and who were prepared to come down from the mountains and forests, hand in their weapons and report to the police before resuming ‘normal’ life. One such is Rachid, whose appearance at the beginning of the film in his parent’s village creates a local stir with some villagers attacking him as the only available possible murderer of their family members. I didn’t pick up the precise time period for the action in the film but historically the story would fit in the period around 1999-2000 following the passing of legislation about ‘civil concord’.
Rachid reports to the police in the neighbouring town. He is offered a job in a café-bar arranged via the police and expected to start naming names. But when he discovers the identity of the local pharmacist, he feels compelled to act without telling the police. I won’t spoil the narrative. Suffice to say, we don’t know at first why the pharmacist is so important or where the story is going to go. Narrative information is given to us sparingly and there is a palpable sense of unease. The film is quite short (87 mins) and it ends rather abruptly. I think I agree with the Cine-Vue reviewer that some of the characters such as the (very reluctant) café owner and the local police chief who set up Rachid in his new identity need more time on screen.
The Algerian Civil War was brutal in many ways and it clearly isn’t ‘over’ yet. I think it’s to the film’s credit that it doesn’t succumb to over-optimistic outcomes. When I reflected on the narrative afterwards I thought this was a restrained and powerful little story. Having said that, I’m not sure what there is to debate. It’s a neglected war in terms of histories and contemporary media coverage, especially in the UK and it shouldn’t be – especially given recent events in the rest of the Maghreb and elsewhere in the Arab world. The film doesn’t take sides or explain why the characters behave as they do, it just shows us some of the terrible consequences of civil war. Allouache himself says that he wanted to “question the amnesia” about the war in Algeria itself. He lives in France and made the film on location in just 20 days with little co-operation (but no banning restriction) from the Algerian cultural authorities. (See his statements in this Euromed Audio-Visual report – including some interesting comments about film culture in Algeria.)
The film was another to be screened in Cannes in Directors Fortnight and it was given a prize by Europa Cinema distributors. I hope it does get a wide release but I think, unfortunately, that it will be a hard sell in the international market. All the more reason then to be grateful to the LFF for bringing it over.