A Vision of the Female Body and the Challenges of the New Reality

in 27th Fribourg International Film Festival

by Wassim Korbi

Fribourg, the quiet Swiss city, where nothing seemed to indicate the presence of a film festival apart from the giant banners. Its streets and ancient alleys were almost empty.

But the city has a surprise in store: during the festival period, the population is living at the movie theater. The theater foyers are crowded with spectators waiting in eager hope of getting a ticket to enter the cinema where they will discover movies from all over the world. The twenty-seventh edition of the Festival International de Films de Fribourg offered, in particular, the opportunity to discover the Saudi film Wadjda,which won this year’s audience award.

Wadjda… Love

The Swiss audience demonstrated their approval and love for Wadjda with a great round of applause at the end of the film. The word “Wadjda” or al-Wajad in Arabic connotes love. Love is indeed the film’s general theme. In defiance of censorship, a filmmaker has taken it upon herself to make the first Saudi film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and directed by a woman.

The Gulf countries in general and Saudi Arabia in particular have only become involved in cinema over the last ten years, despite the fact that cinema appeared more than a century ago, and has secured an important place in the world, which is captured by its images. The reason for this narrow-mindedness is ascribed to a mentality of prohibition that has prevailed for years, the limitations imposed by internal politics, and religious conditions that perceive cinema as a distasteful art. However, there is a budding liberation, and this is the context in which the first Saudi movie appeared: Wadjda, directed by Haifaa Al Mansour. The director received funding from Western countries such as Germany and the United States of America, as well as from Saudi Prince al-Waleed Ibn Talal. Her film tells a humanitarian story, introducing us to the character Wadjda (played by actress Wajd Mohamed), whose fashion choices make her stand out from her classmates. On her way home from school, a bike catches her eye, but in her country bicycles are prohibited for girls. After Wadjda fails to convince her family to buy her a bike, in order to achieve her goal she decides to participate in a contest for memorizing the Quran. Meanwhile, we discover the daily life of Reem Abdullah, Wadjda’s mother, who is herself suffering from her husband’s announcement that he will marry a second woman.

The Female Body in the Arab World

The presence of Arab women in the creative foundations of the cinematic art is weak, both in terms of contributing to the film industry and in terms of the themes of the films. In this regard, Haifa Al-Mansour says: “I have faced severe criticism and fire from the extremists, but I’m trying to give a value to Saudi women, especially if we bear in mind that art is a means of expression through which women forget what they suffer from in such communities.”

The film itself presents the facts about the oppression of the female body through the prevalence of the prohibition mentality: women are prohibited from driving a car or even a bicycle. Therefore, the bike becomes a dream and an ambition for the young girl Wadjda: she is willing to take on the huge challenge of winning the Quran memorization contest because it is the only way she can make enough money to buy the bike for herself. Through scenes that show her efforts to reach her goal, we come to understand the character of this girl, who rebels against the customs, traditions and social imprisonment into which she was born.

Interestingly enough, the female body asserts its legal and natural presence within the cultural, social, existential and political circumstances the film presents. Further, Mansour herself, in making this film, defended the legitimacy of her contribution to the industry, in spite of societal barriers that prevented her from shooting the film under normal conditions. She was obliged to hide in a van during the filming, directing her crew via walkie-talkie, since the presence of a woman as a director is seen as heresy.

The film pays tribute to the female body by addressing its various levels of suppression. These levels are reflected most in the way the film highlights male domination over the female body; women are oppressed while the image of the man is given much importance. This is made clear through polygamy: the husband declares that he will take a second wife, and Reem can’t prevent it. In addition, the film depicts the violation of the female body by showing women’s social exclusion and the violation of their rights. In contrast, we find some scenes that present a stereotypical image of women; though they are educated, intellectual and modern, women do not have political and social rights such as the ability to go out to work, drive a car, etc.

The challenges of the new reality

The plot of Wadjda reflects multiple images: it relies on the popular imagination and re-constructions derived from reality. However, this modernist vision implicitly carries the threads of an audacious new vision and tries to address the unsaid. Hence, the film attracts the attention of the West for its audacity, which is unusual in the Arab countries. The film poses many problems concerning the presence of women in Gulf cinema and their representation in Saudi society, which is characterized by isolation. Thus, Haifa Al Mansour is a member of the generation of “the new sensitivity” who has become known through her short films and the adventure she lived through in making this feature film, a miraculous accomplishment a country where images are forbidden.

Clearly, the future of women’s cinema and cinema in general has taken a step forward and has broken down barriers. In return, however, tackling the themes of the female body raises many questions in light of the first experimental efforts in the Middle East and in this film. So what are the limits of addressing classical women’s topics? How can an innovative trend be developed in addressing women’s issues? What are the limits of confusions between the traditional body and the modernist body? What are the ideologies of the alternative body? How can this new imaginary strengthen its presence on the international film map?

Edited by Alison Frank