In Saudi Arabia, men and women are two very different groups indeed. This has grown out of custom and tradition, rather than any religious doctrines. It means that, in public and in the cities at least, the sexes are segregated. If you happen to be born female, you are forbidden to drive, can’t go out in public without a male chaperone and spend your entire life under the ‘protection’ of a male guardian who decides all the important things for you.
It is a culture portrayed in our next film, the wonderful Wadjda (Al-Mansour 2012). The film is the story of a defiant 10-year-old girl who wears sneakers to school and hangs out with boys. She becomes set on getting a bicycle so she can race (and beat) her friend, avoiding the restrictions of Saudi womanhood for as long as she can. It’s a touching and funny coming of age story, showing the strong relationship between a girl and her mother. I can’t think of many other films off the top of my head where this relationship is the central one in the film.
But Wadjda is not just a good film. It is the first feature film made entirely in Saudi Arabia (a place where access to cinema is limited) and is the first made by a female Saudi director. She made it in spite of the restrictions she faced (she had to direct the street scenes via walkie-talkie from the back of a van). This important piece of cinema enables us to have a little window on this closed and conservative culture, where girls can’t play in the playground because there are some workmen nearby who might see them and don’t ride bicycles because it is believed it will prevent them from having children.
I’ve never been to Saudi, I know I look at this culture with Western eyes and many Saudi women are happy with the way things are (though many also want change). But quite frankly the society portrayed in this film disgusts me – if this was discrimination based on race, there’d be global outrage. As it is, it’s just the way they do things there. Well it’s not right. The way I see it, restricting the freedoms of 50% of people because of their physiology is simple oppression.
Here at Magic Lantern Film Club we don’t have a political agenda for our programming. We try to be inclusive and offer everybody the chance to participate in the wonder of watching a film, of being transported elsewhere for a while. But Mel, Jenny and I are three independent, well-educated, liberal women. We have opinions on gender equality. We like to see strong female characters in film, a medium we love.
Because as well as being magic, cinema has an important role in illuminating the ways in which other people live and addressing injustices. The recent 12 Years A Slave opened many people’s eyes to just how inhuman, degrading and downright awful American slavery was. (By the way, Wadjda‘s not like this at all. There’s no harsh feminist message rammed down your throat. It’s as much about the bicycle as a symbol of freedom, or just a sweet film about growing up.)