Laura Tanna, Contributor
Wadjda was the most incredible experience in London this summer. Oh sure, we were excited about being there when the 'Royal Birth' took place, although we missed the exact moment of the announcement, as we were entering Scott's, an upscale restaurant in Mayfair, at 8:30 p.m., July 22nd.
Scott's had been the scene earlier in the year where art mogul Charles Saatchi was infamously caught by paparazzi with his hands around his wife's throat in a contretemps as they dined at an outside table. His wife, celebrity chef Nigella Lawson, was not amused and the couple is now divorced, their differences continuing to provide fodder for the British press and a topic of conversation throughout the summer heat wave.
This time, paparazzi were eagerly lined up across from Scott's on Mount Street waiting for London Mayor Boris Johnson, who bicycled over for a dinner with Education Secretary Michael Gove. I smiled warmly as I passed the Mayor's table; he happily smiled back. We'd met before at the Cinnamon Club, but the tourists outside when he exited the restaurant were not so discreet. They mobbed him. He manfully allowed photographs to be taken as they enthusiastically draped their arms over his shoulders while he held onto his bike and rucksack, snaps of which appeared in the morning papers. He's the second most well-known politician in the United Kingdom after Cameron and definitely has the charisma to become leader of more than London.
It was Wadjda the next day that really marked my London summer. An excellent interview by Horatia Harrod in The Sunday Telegraph, 21 July 2013, brought the first feature-length film ever shot in Saudi Arabia and the first ever by a Saudi Arabian woman to my attention, so on July 23, I went to a nearby cinema to see it. The film's title is based on its leading character, an 11-year-old girl named Wadjda, who wants to own a bicycle. The simplicity of the idea magnifies our complete incomprehension of how lacking in equality the rights of women are in Saudi Arabia. We know they can't drive a car. We know they can't travel without the permission of a male relative. We've read or heard about these things, but we've never felt them. The power of this film is its warmth. It's never confrontational, never preachy. Instead, the film opens with a touching embrace between father and daughter. One feels the love between husband and wife. One feels the delightful friendship between Wadjda and a boy in the neighbourhood who does own a bicycle. And one feels the anguish as Wadjda's mother fears her husband will take a second wife to have a son. But its details that one sees at Wadjda's school, like suddenly having to drop behind a wall because girls in a school yard cannot be seen by workmen on a neighbouring roof, so many infringements on freedoms that we in Jamaica take for granted, that makes this a film we must find a way of viewing here!
Haifaa al-Mansour, Saudi Arabia's first female film director, left the country at age 18 to study at the American University in Cairo, then returned to work in media relations in Saudi before making short films, the first of which was 'Who?' about a serial killer, disguised within the abaya and face veil, murdering women. Only seven minutes long, its powerful symbolism exposed the huge gender divide that existed in 2003 and gained al-Mansour a great deal of hate mail.
While the gender rift remains, the symbolism of a bicycle as a means towards greater freedom for Wadjda is rooted in realism. Official permission for women to ride bicycles in public in Saudi was only granted this year!
Haifaa al-Mansour, a very attractive 39-year-old, had to sometimes work from within a van, using a walkie-talkie to speak with her camera crew as they filmed scenes in Riyadh because she could not be seen working with men.
She only found her lead actress the last week before filming was to begin because so few parents would allow their daughters to act.
No Acting Experience
Waad Mohammed had no previous acting experience, but does a brilliant job as the enterprising tomboy who is equally endearing and forthright. Abdullah, her young male playmate, gives a glimmer of hope for the future of Arabian women and al-Mansour herself has intimated that after five years of trying to get this film made, she created a work that was less severe than originally envisioned. Choosing to film in Saudi Arabia itself, al-Mansour shoots in colour with clarity, framing scenes with maximum precision, so that we gain a sense of circumspect Riyadh life, separate and unequal.
The film premiered at the Venice Film Festival in August 2012, in the United States at the Telluride Film Festival September 2012 and has won numerous awards in other festivals, but only opened to the UK public on July 19, 2013. And, if you didn't know, cinemas are banned in Saudi Arabia, although people in other Arab countries have seen Wadjda. In fact, Waad Mohammed won Best Actress in a feature film at the Dubai International Film Festival last year. Thank goodness for people like Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a progressive Saudi whose Rotana film production company assisted Haifaa in funding her must-see film.
Another impressive emotional learning experience through the arts was attending the play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the night-time, which has moved from The National Theatre in London to the Apollo in the West End and originally projected to end in January 2014 is now selling tickets until October 25, 2014! It won seven Olivier Awards in 2013, and is incredibly well staged and acted. Based on the best-selling novel by Mark Haddon and adapted to the stage by Simon Stephens, it gets you into the mind of a 15-year-old with Asperger Syndrome who hates physical touch, cannot tell a lie, and identifies with mathematics.
The play allows one to understand how difficult it is to live with this disorder, both as the teenager Christopher and as his loving parents. Make this another experience if you're in London.