GIRL’S QUEST IN A LOW GEAR

A Saudi film­maker breaks new ground with her wry, gen­tle tale, writes Michael Bodey

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

and be­com­ing more tol­er­ant and they are re­con­sid­er­ing a lot of the lib­eral arts,’’ she says.

She seems more con­fi­dent of the fu­ture than oth­ers, who fear re­li­gious con­ser­va­tives will wrest back con­trol of the coun­try when the sixth king of Saudi Ara­bia, Ab­dul­lah, dies. He has strug­gled with health is­sues, in­clud­ing a heart at­tack, since 2010 and has re­treated from pub­lic view. He is 88.

Her creative growth has ben­e­fited from what she sees in Saudi terms (if not in Western eyes) is a rel­a­tively lib­eral regime. Al-Man­sour stud­ied in Cairo and made a num­ber of shorts and a doc­u­men­tary be­fore tak­ing a masters de­gree in film stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Syd­ney in 2008-09 — ‘‘ Or Syd­ney Uni, as you Aus­tralians say,’’ she says with a smile.

Her pre­vi­ous bach­e­lor’s de­gree in lit­er­a­ture gave her in­sights to char­ac­ters and plot but she re­quired more film­mak­ing knowl­edge across both the­ory and prac­tice as she pre­pared to make her first fea­ture.

Her first draft of Wad­jda de­vel­oped as part of her Syd­ney de­gree in a screen­writ­ing work­shop with Blue Mur­der writer Ian David. He also wrote her first rec­om­men­da­tion to the in­de­pen­dent film hot­house, the Sun­dance Writ­ers’ Lab in the US. ‘‘ And I’m an alumni now!’’ she says.

As she tack­led film the­ory, al-Man­sour’s pre­vi­ously main­stream film diet ex­ploded. Ja­far Panahi’s Ira­nian films, par­tic­u­larly Off­side, which was ‘‘ young and colour­ful but sim­ple and pro­jected a lot about Ira­nian so­ci­ety’’, spoke to her.

‘‘ I felt it was some­thing I could use in my own movies,’’ she says. The Dar­denne broth­ers’ 1999 Palme d’Or win­ner Rosetta showed her how to por­tray a fe­male pro­tag­o­nist with the dig­nity to change her sit­u­a­tion and the dia­logue in films by the Coen broth­ers in­spired her.

The lack of any Saudi film in­dus­try re­mains a dis­trac­tion, though. She says she hopes to con­tinue mak­ing films but will al­ways re­quire co-pro­duc­tion help from the West ( Wad­jda was co-pro­duced by Ger­man pro­duc­ers, Ra­zor Film Pro­duk­tion in con­junc­tion with Rotana, the film pro­duc­tion com­pany of Saudi prince al-Waleed bin Talal).

The catch 22, ob­vi­ously, is that the global in­dus­try re­mains re­luc­tant to show films from Gulf coun­tries be­cause they have no his­tory of screen­ing them, let alone pro­duc­ing com­mer­cially suc­cess­ful films.

Yet the Gulf coun­tries, in­clud­ing Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Ara­bia, have thriv­ing lo­cal TV sec­tors. Egyp­tian cin­ema dom­i­nates the re­gion.

‘‘[ In] the Gulf re­gion, we don’t have a his­tory of film­mak­ing be­fore but now that sit­u­a­tion is chang­ing be­cause peo­ple are in­ter­ested,’’ alMan­sour says. ‘‘ Po­lit­i­cally and eco­nom­i­cally the area is be­com­ing more pow­er­ful, so peo­ple want to know more.’’

Un­for­tu­nately, some neigh­bours who do have com­pe­tent film sec­tors thanks to their his­tor­i­cal links with France, such as Tu­nisia and Morocco, may not be head­ing in the same di­rec­tion cul­tur­ally as Saudi Ara­bia.

From the dis­tance of Bahrain, which is con­nected to Saudi Ara­bia via a causeway, alMan­sour be­lieves her govern­ment ‘‘ is try­ing to in­tro­duce changes grad­u­ally, like giv­ing women more rights and giv­ing more space to pol­i­tics and art’’.

‘‘ I feel Saudi Ara­bia is mov­ing ahead in the right di­rec­tion al­though the change is very slow. But places like Tu­nisia, it’s very sad — peo­ple are los­ing lib­er­ties they gained in the past,’’ she notes. ‘‘ It’s ironic, I feel we are mov­ing in the right di­rec­tion and be­com­ing more lib­eral by the day, whereas other places with a more lib­eral his­tory are be­com­ing more con­ser­va­tive.’’

The prac­ti­cal­i­ties of a woman film­ing in the Saudi cap­i­tal Riyadh re­main oner­ous, how­ever, and tell a dif­fer­ent story. While film­ing, alMan­sour re­mained be­hind her veil and, to work on some scenes, in­side a cus­tomised van equipped with mon­i­tors and com­mu­ni­ca­tion de­vices. The fact she was able to shoot the first fea­ture filmed en­tirely in the coun­try, how­ever, was a sign of progress, she be­lieves.

Haifaa al-Man­sour has struck a per­fect bal­ance in Wad­jda. Play­ing within the stric­tures of her na­tion she has pro­duced a film that sub­tly crit­i­cises its mores.

Western eyes are agog at some of the so­cial re­stric­tions shown in her film, yet the di­rec­tor in­ter­weaves them within an os­ten­si­bly mild nar­ra­tive that re­calls Vit­to­rio de Sica’s Bi­cy­cle Thieves.

Al-Man­sour ex­plains she doesn’t want to ‘‘ force or clash be­cause peo­ple will just shun it’’. ‘‘ I tried to main­tain my voice as a film­maker but I still re­spect the cul­ture where I come from and work within that frame­work,’’ she says.

‘‘ It’s very im­por­tant to in­tro­duce film in that way and build it or­gan­i­cally within the cul­ture. As an artist I don’t want to be like that per­son they don’t want to hear. I want to take peo­ple on jour­neys and en­ter­tain them.

‘‘ Of course, I want to say things about the so­ci­ety and my life as a woman and stuff like that,’’ she says, ‘‘ but I want to say it in a way that doesn’t of­fend peo­ple as much as en­gage them with dia­logue back home.

‘‘ I’m re­flect­ing the re­al­ity of the sit­u­a­tion and cre­at­ing a world that is very real and peo­ple can take from it what they want.’’

Saudi film di­rec­tor Haifaa al-Man­sour

Wad­jda

Waad Mo­hammed in

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