Sydney Film Festival Review: 'Wadjda' screening and Haifaa Al Mansour Apple Store talk

12 June 2013

Dr Richard Smith joins his former student Haifaa Al Mansour, Saudi Arabia's first female filmmaker, at the Sydney Film Festival screening of her debut Wadjda. Image: Michael Cook.

Haifaa Al Mansour, Saudi Arabia's first female filmmaker, enters the maw of the State Theatre's engulfing stage for the screening of her debut feature Wadjda. Dwarfed by the baroque grandeur of the old concert hall, she emerges in retro ankle-cut Adidas sneakers, an 80s style green denim jacket capped off with an old-school Sydney University T-shirt. Haifaa appears as comfortable before a crowd of thousands as she would lounging at a Darlinghurst cafe. Her diminutive stature belies a feisty personality, and an uncontainable passion to share her country's stories as she uncloaks the secret lives of Saudi women.

It's hard to comprehend that this filmmaker, so self-assured and doggedly outspoken, is the product of the same society in which women are hidden from the outside world, denied the opportunities of their male compatriots and forced into a system of quiet acquiescence to tribal custom.

Haifaa's film Wadjda depicts the plight of an 11-year-old girl growing up in a deeply segregated world, pursuing a simple dream of one day owning a green bicycle. Though couched in unfamiliar settings as the first film entirely shot in Saudi Arabia, Wadjda manages to strike universal chords that resonate well beyond the conservative country. With themes spanning mother-daughter relationships, quests for identity, the struggles of childhood and the burdens of duty, the film is both insightful and relatable, and Wadjda remains remarkably accessible.

Early in the film, a group of schoolgirls are scolded by their strict teachers for laughing in public, warned with the reprimand: "A woman's voice is her nakedness." But now that this filmmaker has found her voice, and has a platform to be heard, she won't be silenced.

After the screening, Haifaa takes to a much smaller stage at George Street's Apple Store for a discussion of Wadjda with her former lecturer Dr Richard Smith. It quickly becomes apparent that there are more than a few parallels between the artist and her protagonist, Wadjda. Both are quippy, gutsy and spirited, an acerbic remark never far from their arsenal of irreverent comments. When an audience member asks if her film had anything to do with changes in Saudi law allowing women to ride bikes for the first time, Haifaa smirks: "I wish I can, but I will take credit for it! It was after the film!"

Dr Smith asks her about the process of devising a film stylistically without a tradition of Saudi Arabian cinema to draw upon, and asks where she found inspiration. Haifaa responds with her patented quick wit: "Your class, of course!" along to laughs from the crowd. The script was first written as part of her Master of Film Studies degree at the University of Sydney, so the response is not entirely facetious.

Later, when confronted with the question of whether she rides a bike in her home country, a flash of Wadjda seeps through her response: "I don't ride a bicycle in Saudi, and I don't advise it, people drive like crazy!"

Like the film itself, such comedic moments in the discussion present a counterpoint to the rather grim reality facing most Saudi women, who are forbidden from driving, riding bikes for transportation and being seen by men unveiled in public.

But Haifaa's is an unusual case. Born the eighth in a family of 12 children, her parents were "progressive in their own way", never forbidding her from achieving her dreams even in the face of intense criticism over the family's respectability. That's not to say she was exempt from the gender subjugation represented in the film. Haifaa recalls her decision to become a filmmaker upon returning home from studying abroad in Egypt.

Haifaa Al Mansour
"I think Saudi Arabia is changing a lot. They're moving forward and there is a place for women and a place for art," says Haifaa Al Mansour. Photo: Michael Cook.

"I felt so invisible as a young woman trying to find my voice and who I am," she reflects. "[Saudi Arabia] is a difficult place for a woman to be, I felt I don't have a voice and nobody even hears me. For me, making films is almost like therapy. It gave me a voice that I never had. People for once are listening to me."

Not everyone in Saudi Arabia likes what Haifaa has to say. She acknowledges that many conservatives in her country are fundamentally opposed to her position as a female filmmaker. An audience member even expresses concerns for Haifaa's safety in the wake of the film's implicit questioning of conservative Saudi values. But Haifaa remains nonchalant in the face of such fears.

"I'm very safe in my country, and I think Saudi Arabia is changing a lot. They're moving forward and there is a place for women and a place for art. But we have to be gentle...It is dangerous, it's not something you can take for granted. But we have to move forward and we have to take the risk."

As the discussion draws to a close, two audience remarks clash in a fitting microcosm of the debates Wadjda has prompted. A woman raises her scepticism of the film's representation of Saudi culture, accusing Haifaa of reinstalling stereotypes and playing with colonial cliches.

"I get this a lot," Haifaa calmly responds. "This is all part of the change and accepting change...We struggle between modernity and we struggle between tradition. In Saudi, we wear jeans, we drive Ferraris, we have flat screen TVs, but then we have to conform to tribal rule. And that creates a very interesting tension and I don't think this exists in other nations except in the Gulf states."

Soon after, a quiet man sitting directly in front of the stage clutches the microphone to speak his piece. Haifaa suddenly shifts forward in her chair, eyes brightening and alert, and exclaims: "Ah, I knew you were Saudi, I was waiting for you to speak up!"

He responds in a shy stilted voice, nearly a whisper: "As a Saudi citizen, I'm very proud of you. I will mention - our nation needs women like Haifaa to move forward and I just want to say you can see and listen too. Thank you very much."

To which Haifaa quips: "See, Saudi Arabia is changing!"

Haifaa Al Mansour's appearance at the Sydney Film Festival is supported by the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Sydney. The 60th Sydney Film Festival runs until 16 June. For further information about the University's involvement, visit our micro-site.

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Contact: Emily Jones

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