Fire, ash and bulldust
reality. Wadjda is particularly impressive because it’s not only the first feature film made in Saudi Arabia, a country where there are apparently no cinemas, but it was made by a young woman, Haifaa Al Mansour. It’s a simple story about a 10-year-old tomboy, beautifully played by Waad Mohammed, who longs to have a bicycle so that she can race her friend, Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), but in a country where women aren’t allowed to drive cars, girls who ride bikes are also frowned on. From such a simple premise, Al Mansour explores the role of women and girls in this extremely patriarchal society, without seeming to preach or to indulge in over-emphasis.
Wadjda lives with her mother (Reem Abdullah) in what appears to be a suburb of Riyadh; she’s happy enough, but she seldom sees her father (Sultan Al Assaf), who lives with his parents nearby. The tension in the household stems from the fact the father is being pressured by his parents to take a second wife who can give him a son. At school, Wadjda’s sense of self and independence (she wears sneakers, talks too loudly, listens to pop songs) have aroused the ire of her headmistress ( Ahd Kamel), but Wadjda takes little notice of her admonitions; she’s feisty and independent and you want to applaud her as she single-mindedly goes about trying to raise enough money to buy the green bicycle tantalisingly displayed at a store near her home.
For a first film from a country where filmmaking is unknown, Wadjda is a remarkable achievement; it was made in collaboration with a German company, and most of the technical crew, including cameraman Lutz Reitemeier, are German. When Al Mansour, who was partly educated in Australia, visited here last year for the Sydney Film Festival, where her film was in competition (but lost out to the appalling Only God Forgives) she spoke of the difficulties she had directing, especially the location scenes, because she couldn’t be seen to be giving orders to men. Yet she has succeeded triumphantly in overcoming all obstacles; by any standards, this a fine, moving film and essential viewing for anyone who cares about contemporary cinema. NIGERIAN director Biyi Bandele’s epic Half of a Yellow Sun is an adaptation of a 450-page novel that combines an examination of the savage Nigerian Civil War (1967-70) with a personal story about the lives of twin sisters. Olanna (Thandie Newton) and Kainene (Anika Noni Rose) are the daughters of a successful Lagos businessman; they are well educated (both studied in London) and attractive but they are soon faced with the grim reality of tribal warfare and mass killings. Olanna, whose lover, Odenigbo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), is a radical academic, flees to the “independent” state of Biafra but can’t escape the conflict while Kainene, whose lover is Richard (Joseph Mawle), an Englishman, faces equally daunting problems.
This epic approach to a terrible conflict incorporates newsreels and maps to make things clearer for the uninitiated. It’s an impressive film on many levels, and a significant achievement for the embryonic Nigerian film industry.
Kit Harington in Pompeii, top; Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton in Half of a Yellow Sun, above left; and Waad Mohammed and Abdullrahman Al Gohani in Wadjda, above right