Saturday, November 2, 2013

More than just a critique on Saudi Culture....

More and more mainstream sources of media are becoming less satisfactory to the consumer. The nightly news and entertainment shows which loop the same stories on repeat; the big blockbuster hits which follow the same story line every summer; and the headlines which compete for our attention when we open to the home page on our browsers are losing their appeal and pushing the consumer to seek out alternative media. Refreshing new stories and perspectives and the brains behind them, which are rebelling against the standard cookie cutter media, are receiving increasing amounts of attention.  One such source is the film Wadjda, directed by Haifaa al-Mansour, a female of Saudia Arabian descent whose inspiring film about 11-year old girl has been at the center of controversy.

Living  with her family in Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh, 11-year old Wadjda is fully immersed in her culture, abiding by societal norms, and dealing with a tumultuous home life as her father rejects Wadjda’s mother in favor of finding a second wife. All the while, Wadjda dreams of being the proud owner of green bicycle she passes each day on her route to school. She pleads with her distracted mother to no avail. Finally she decides to find ways to make her own money by selling mix tapes and eventually participating in a contest to recite the Qur’an which she wins and looks forward to collecting the prize money to purchase her dream bicycle. To her horror the prize money is to be donated to Palestine a decision which is made when the judges learn of Wadjda’s intentions to purchase her first racing bike. Disappointed by her reality, that woman of all ages are repressed by many aspects of Saudi Arabian culture, Wadjda returns home to more fateful news; her father has taken a second wife but more importantly her mother has gifted her with the green racing bike which she longed for.
This is most certainly a critique on Saudi Arabian culture, martial customs, and the treatment of woman within this particular culture and is hardly a stretch from reality. Director Haifaa al-Mansour has been interviewed extensively post production revealing the discrimination which she personally faced during filming.  Being Saudi Arabia’s first feature length film, Haifaa al-Mansour was prepared to face permitting challenges as the film took five years to produce because Mansour insisted on the “authenticity” of the location. After approval Mansour often found herself calling the shots from inside a van via telephone to prevent the appearance of her giving orders to the male crew members.  At points the cast and crew were forced to work around prayer hours in neighborhoods where they were unwelcomed. Now nominated for best foreign language film, Al Mansour humbly stated “This is a sign that things are improving,", but there is still a long way to go for Saudi Arabia.

 It’s unrealistic to expect all cultures to be equally progressive but it’s a shame that it requires critical praise and academy nominations for a film to garner the respect of the Saudi Arabian government. Popomivore, a branch of the national geographic publication, explores some cultural realities of life in Saudi Arabia.  A place with strict public gender segregation rules, no public movie theaters and of course a country where women were outlawed from riding bikes of any kind up until April 2013, Saudi Arabia is far from gender neutral and in fact seems to be gender obsessed.
Wadjda not only opened the door for criticism on the cultural taboos found in the film but in Saudia Arabia as a whole. However, it places a perhaps a not so favorable spotlight on a very wealthy but narrow minded government.  As an alternative film, the story of Wadjda is inspiring on its own but its back story is equally as incredible as the determination of al Mansour to expose the not so comfortable truth, the alternative truth that mainstream media neglects. Many independent films are developed for this very purpose and not all slip through the cracks making headlines. However, Wadjda draws attention to old school gender discrimination which is taking place in the modern world. Hopefully Wadjda will aide in the dismantling of discriminatory institutions and practices within Saudi Arabia and other like minded nations.

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