Arab Women Directors. Movies Reviewed: The Square, Wadjda, When I Saw You PLUS TIFF13, TPFF
Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.
Cloaked in mystery and sensuality, western views of an oil-rich but treacherous “orient” dominated our image of the middle east for decades. Orientalism ruled. More recently, the narrative has shifted to that of an aggressive, terrorist super-villain poised to take over Europe and North America.
We hear news, daily, about Arab countries, but rarely do we hear voices from them. Arab voices are muffled or silenced in Western media. And Arab women are said to be stifled within these cultures. But is this the case? This week I’m talking about three movies, all in Arabic, and all from female filmmakers who prove to be anything but silent.
There’s an up-to-the-minute documentary about the protests at Cairo’s Tahrir Square; a sweet drama about a contemporary Saudi girl; and a historical drama about a Palestinian boy and his mom, refugees in Jordan immediately after the 1967 war.
Dir: Jehane Noujaim
What you’re hearing (on the podcast version) are the voices of protesters in Tahrir Square in 2011. They’re calling for Mubarek – a dictator for three decades – to step down. What’s unique about these protesters is how inclusive they were. Muslims and Copts, religious and secular, artists, academic and revolutionaries, young and old. They all come together around a small patch of Cairo green. With sound of fireworks bursting overhead, they force Mubarek to step down, the military to bring in a new constitution, and hold Egypt’s first national democratic election.
The Muslim Brotherhood — a fundamentalist political party that had been jailed and persecuted for decades by the military — arises as the only large-scale organized group. They distribute oil and food to potential voters and win the election by close margin. But soon enough, Morsi begins to act much in the same way as Mubarek had done, gathering power for his own faction not for the country as a whole.
This exciting documentary combines brand-new footage taking us from the first demos to Morsi’s fall this summer. What’s really special about it, though, is how the doc follows a half-dozen of the protesters – from all of the groups involved – who personify the demonstrations. An actor, a student, an activist, a graffiti artist, a member of the Brotherhood, they represent all Egyptians. This is raw, frontline footage: some of the protesters get brutally beaten or imprisoned, others run for their lives during a chaotic government crackdown.
Most chilling of all are the one-on-one interviews (in a chauffeured limousine) with an all-powerful military officer. He dismisses the demonstrators, the constitution and democracy itself as trivial events in his machiavellian view of Egypt. Sadly, it is the military running that country again.
Dir: Haifaa Al Mansour
Wadjda (Waad Mohamed) is a rebellious girl who lives with her mom. She’s into black Converse running shoes, blue jeans, mixed cassette tapes and soccer… and she’s intrigued by the concept of blue nail polish. She’s not much interested in religion, school or traditional women’s roles. And she lets people know when they’re pissing her off. So when she meets a kid named Abdullah who beats her in a race (her on foot, him on a bike) she decides to get a bike of her own so she can beat him. The thing is, Wadjda lives in Saudi Arabia and her school is a madrassa! And, she is told, girls shouldn’t ride bikes in Saudi Arabia.
She decides to enter and win a Koran recital contest so she can buy the bike with the prize money. Has she suddenly become religious, and changed her attitude? (That’s what the school principal wants to happen.) Are they wearing her down? Or will she stick to her principles? And will she and her mother be relegated to side roles if her dad marries a second wife?
Wadjda is a fascinating look at the lives of girls and women in Saudi Arabia. This filmmaker is no softie; she shows a realistic view of both the oppression of women, as well as their everyday lives. Girls are taught never to laugh out loud, lest it distract nearby men; to cover their faces if a man comes into view; and they need a male driver to get anywhere (driving a car is still illegal for women in Saudi Arabia). It’s a country of religious rules and special permits, with South Asian workers doing the less desirable service roles.
But it’s also a country full of ordinary people doing ordinary things – yes, just like anywhere else. As a movie, Wadjda is a real delight. A simple story, but one that rings true.
When I Saw You
Dir: Annemarie Jacir
Tarek is Palestinian boy who likes math and hates slimy food. But immediately after the 1967 war, he and his mom suddenly find themselves in a refugee camp in Jordan. He doesn’t like it there. Where’s his teacher? Where’s his dad? Where’s his home, his bed, his indoor toilet? And how come they don’t let him go to school?
He knows he’ll be going home soon, he’s not that far away. But he grows disheartened when he meets an old woman who says she’s been in the camp… since 1948! Refugees are treated terribly by urban Jordanians, but the newest refugees are treated worst of all. One day, he sees Yassir Arafat on TV saying the world is about to see a new kind of Palestinian — helpless refugees no more.
So Tarek runs away from the camp, away from his mother. He’s found in the desert by a bearded guy who had recently left the camp to become a fedayeen – a revolutionary fighter.
He finds himself in a secret war camp: it’s 1967. No prayers, just long hair and hippy beards, and women with ponytails. They all sing wistful songs around a campfire. No Koran in sight, just a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book. From each according to his means, to each according to his needs…
The boot camp is led by a older man with the war nickname Abu Akram. He wants Tarek to go back to the refugee camp – but the kid is stubborn, and eventually wins him over. And when his mother catches up with them, she sets up camp there too.
Will Tarek and his mom make it back to their village, just across the newly-fenced border?
When I Saw You is a revelatory film; the roots of the post-1967 situation of Palestinian refugees as seen through one determined boy’s eyes. It gives a completely different view — I’d say a completely opposite view — of the fedayeen. Known for decades in North America as the “Palestinian terrorists”, they are portrayed here as freedom fighters who just want their homes back. When I Saw You provides a singularly different historical narrative from the one you’re used to.
A good, fascinating film.
The Square premiered at TIFF13, Wadjda opens next week in Toronto, check your local listings, and When I Saw You opens the Toronto Palestine Film Festival on Sept 28 at 6:30 (go to tpff.ca for details). And Toronto filmmaker John Greyson and Dr Tarek Loubani are still being held in an Egyptian prison. They are now on a hunger strike — go to tarekandjohn.com to find out more.
This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com