Women, Film and The Arab Spring

in 9th Dubai International Film Festival

by Julie Rigg

Women’s voices are being heard insistently in the tumble of films now emerging from “The Arab Spring”. At the 9th edition of Dubai International Film Festival  – the middle East’s largest, richest film  festival,  just concluded – they were there in many forms, with strong films from women directors, and films which foregrounded the  situation of women across the Arab world.

The most prominent, and also one of the most contentious of these was ”Wadjda”, which is the first feature film to be made in Saudi Arabia, where cinemas have been closed for three decades. ”Wadjda” took the Festival’s biggest award, the Muhr prize for an Arab feature, and has already been well received critically at Venice and London.

Wadjda (Waad Mohammed)  is a ten year old girl who wants a bicycle so she can race against her friend  and playmate Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), a friend she shouldn’t be seen playing with.  Her mother (Reem Abdullah) is shocked and tells her that riding a bicycle will prevent her having babies.

But Wadjda is a tomboy. She wears scuffed sneakers to school under her abaya, and is often in trouble for raising her voice, having her hair uncovered, and not paying attention to the rules with which Saudi girls on the cusp of puberty are being inculcated.

She is intelligent, and many of these don’t make sense to her. When she sees a new bicycle, she begins to save money for it, and when the football club bracelets she makes and sells are confiscated, she sees an opportunity when her school announces a competition, with prize money, for the best recitation of the Koran. She joins the religious club she has so far shunned, and begins to apply herself.

There are two sub plots to this film: One is the pre-occupation of the mother, whose husband  is being pressured to take a second wife so he can have a son. His visits to their apartment are increasingly rare, and her mother is fretting, and trying to hold onto his affections.

At the school, the headmistress  Ms. Hussa (Ahd) enforces a regime which, by application of reward and punishment, is a designed to school the girls to accept the restrictions of their lives as women in the Salafi dominated Kingdom.

Director Haifaa Al Mansour handles all these scenes with clarity and insight: from the tugs of competing peer pressure among the girls in the school, to the chafing restrictions faced by women in the Kingdom where women cannot drive , and are forbidden to travel, work, study abroad, marry, get divorced or gain admittance to a public hospital without permission from a male guardian, and where limited voting and candidature rights, in municipal elections were only recently announced, and have yet to take effect.

Waad Mohammed  as Wadjda shines at the centre of this film:  she is unaffected and totally convincing as a young girl who makes her own assessment of the adults around her, and whether their pronouncements make sense. Sometimes, with her friend Abdullah, she snorts in derision. At other times she is eager for her absent father’s approval; distressed for her mother’s mounting isolation.

At DIFF, rumours swirled around ”Wadjda”, in part because it came already critically heralded from Festivals in Venice, London , and Telluride, and because its production had support from a Saudi prince…and co-operation from Saudi television. It was described to me as “too American”, as a ploy to focus and pre-empt female rebellion within the Kingdom where a group of middle class women have recently begun agitating for the right to drive.

In fact it is produced by the German company Razor, whose partners aim to support Middle Eastern film makers make films which speak clearly of their concerns, and whose slate includes the aesthetically and politically daring “Waltz with Bashir”.

Haifaa Al Mansour herself was educated at the American University in Cairo, and later studied film at the University of Sydney. She has previously made three short films, and a documentary, ”Women Without Shadows”.

And yes, the script was workshopped at Sundance. But she shot her film in Riyadh, sometimes directing exterior scenes in conservative, middle class neighbourhoods hidden within a van.

And her film, I think is informed by of course the neo-realist classic ”Bicycle Thieves”, and perhaps also influenced by such Iranian classics as ”The White Balloon”, and others employing as child’s point of view to explore social realities.

But neo-realist it is not. It is a dream, complete with a small happy ending. Which is, of course, unreal.

“A girl or woman would never be allowed to ride a bicycle in Saudi”, said one Arab critic.

So yes, it is a dream. But then, as the poet Robin Morgan said..”nothing ever changes until somebody goes too far”

By contrast, at Diff this year there were many films from woman film makers which painted powerful pictures of oppression. One striking film from Egypt, “Chaos, Disorder” showed a portrait of power, influence and political maneuvering in a small closed community where one man, a store owner,  controls the resources, including access to the outside world via his mobile phone; where supplies were trucked in and his cronies controlled access to them, and where two rivals for the hand of a young woman compete for her hand via a football match. In this community there is also the figure of the fixer, Tok Tok, who alternately fans disputes, and manipulates the protagonists, and arranging the outcome, for a price.

Things begin to unravel when the outside favourite wins the match, and when a footage on a phone is found of the Chief filming a small girl in a sexual encounter. Director Nadine Khan, daughter of noted Egyptian film maker Mohamed Khan, gives us a raucous, fast paced film apparently presented as comedy; an allegory of a closed society with dark unease beneath the surface. It is in fact a disturbing film, not least because the reaction to the violated small girl is one of shame and concern for reputation, rather than concern for the girl herself. Women are mostly compliant manipulators. Performances are uneven,  and the actress who plays the local princess, Manal, is overly sultry, as though strayed from an Egyptian soap. But is nonetheless a striking film, an allegory whose production was halted by Egyptian censors, then in the lull after Tahrir Square, completed.

Among the short films in the Muhr competition,  Fyzal Boulifa’s ”The Curse” (UK, filmed in Morocco) strikingly shows the dilemma of a village woman, Fatine, who is meeting an older lover when she is spied by a small boy and his gang of followers. Cursed as a slut, her attempts to buy the children off with sweets, and the sexual favour she trades to buy them, only confirm their readiness to label her.

It’s a bleak and powerful, well made film but in highlighting the position of the woman in traditional Arab society as a ”dangerous sexual vessel” or it is presenting a closed world.

Equally closed is the world of Ouardia, an Algerian mother who is the central figure in ”Yema” (and the only woman in it). She is played by the director herself, Djamila Sahraoui, a Paris based Algerian film-maker. ”Yema” (the word means mother) is about a peasant woman who has raised two sons, only to have one, working for the armed forces, killed in a skirmish against rebels led by the younger son, who has also taken the favoured son’s wife.

Structured as relentlessly as a Greek myth, the film is a tale of a woman’s search for revenge, and her gradual softening as her surviving son brings her his child to nurture. But there is a bitter undertone to this film, and the proposal that through raising the child, as she raises her crops, a new generation will have hope could equally be read as a demonstration that the cycle, imprisoning the mother as nurturer, continues.

More affecting I found was a small short film from Pascale Abou Jamra. ”Behind Me Olive Trees” is very personal film about a young woman, Marjam, who has returned to Lebanon, and her native village with her young brother. Ten years earlier, their father, a Falangist commander, had taken them to Israel. Now he is dead, and back in Lebanon she is shunned without resources, home and identity. This indeed is a low-key neo realist film in style, and speaks eloquently of the situation  of children across the Arab world imprisoned by their parents choices.