From Senegal to Saudi Arabia: Girls working for change

By
Oct 19th, 2012

“Wadjda” (Haifaa Al Mansour, 2012) and “Tall as the Baobab Tree” (“Grand comme le Baobab,” Jeremy Teicher, 2012) are set in far distant countries: the first in Saudi Arabia, the second in Senegal. But both films treat a surprisingly similar theme: girls who won’t let tradition stand in the way of their desires.

“Wadjda” centers on its title character, a young girl who is desperate for a bicycle to race against her best friend Abdullah. Her mother refuses to buy one for her, because “girls don’t ride bicycles.” When the school principal announces a “Koran competition” with a cash prize, Wadjda makes it her mission to win.

“Tall as the Baobab Tree” centers on Coumba, a teenage student equally determined to raise money. When her brother falls out of a baobab tree and injures his leg, their father wants to marry off their little sister Debo to pay the medical bills. Determined that the 11-year-old should stay in school, Coumba sneaks away from the family farm each morning to work in the nearby town. Little by little, the girls’ secret stash of banknotes increases; meanwhile their father gets closer and closer to finding a wealthy groom.

Both films have a classic goal-oriented storyline, which immediately engages the audience: will Wadjda get her bike? And will Coumba make enough money to save her sister? There is the additional appeal of the films’ central female characters, who easily win the audience’s sympathy: the feisty Wadjda, the calm but determined Coumba, the sweet and gentle Debo. Also endearing are the young male friends who support these girls: teasing but kind-hearted Abdullah, who teaches Wadjda to ride his bike, and Coumba’s school colleague Amady, who takes her place tending the family’s cattle while she goes to work. The characters are well-individuated and their performances are natural and believable. While the films treat the serious topic of the violation of women’s rights and freedoms, through these characters there is room for both humour and optimism.

The films will be interesting to both domestic and international audiences because they offer something new. “Wadjda” is the first film ever made by a woman in Saudi Arabia; there, public cinemas have been banned for 30 years, but there is a huge appetite for watching films at home, as well as a budding underground resistance movement of secret cinemas. “Tall as the Baobab Tree,” meanwhile, is the first feature film in the Puular language. It is the result of a collaborative project between its American director and the students at a village school in Sinthiou Mbadane: the film was inspired by the students’ own experiences, the actors are untrained and play characters similar to themselves, and the dialogue was based on improvisation.

“Wadjda” and “Tall as the Baobab Tree” are inspiring and beautiful, but international audiences will feel shaken by the situations they portray. For those who have never experienced life in Senegal or Saudi Arabia, this constitutes both the particular interest and the sobering dimension of these films. By letting foreign audiences inside a Saudi home and girls’ school, “Wadjda” reveals women’s faces that would normally be hidden. This immediately makes the audience feel closer to the women, making it bizarre and upsetting when these familiar faces are covered with veils every time the women step outside. In a country where men can choose to wear either Western or traditional clothing, forcing women to cover their entire bodies with a black veil seems not only unfair, but an attempt to erase the very existence of women. Audiences may come to this film with the preconception that girls brought up in such an environment are conditioned to accept constraints on their freedom. While some of the girls at Wadjda’s school clearly enjoy being model students, feeling superior by conforming to the rules, others (like Wadjda) give in to natural childish tendencies to run around, shout, laugh and play. It is particularly hard to watch authority figures like the school principal quashing their vitality, constantly telling the girls in their charge that they should never allow themselves to be seen or heard by men. This means covering their bodies and faces, and lowering their voices in public: in other words, restricting their existence to the limited spaces reserved for women.

Female characters in “Tall as the Baobab Tree” have more freedom in their dress and movement, but their lives are still controlled by men. Coumba and Debo may be the first in their family to receive a formal education, but a unilateral decision by their father can bring Debo’s education to an abrupt end. Their mother, meanwhile, doesn’t expect her husband to discuss his plans with her, and doesn’t even attempt to influence his thinking.

Neither of these films presents a simple picture of individual desire versus tradition: in both cases, the audience is made to understand the complexities of the situation. Wadjda’s mother can’t single-handedly change the culture of their country: she has to bring up her daughter to be well-adapted for adult life in Saudi Arabia. Her naturally warm and joyful personality is obscured by the stress of transportation arrangements (since women aren’t allowed to drive) and marital difficulties (since she hasn’t given her husband a son). Wadjda’s father, although often absent, warmly expresses his love for his wife and daughter; it is mainly his mother who puts on the pressure for a male heir.

Similarly, Coumba’s parents seem bound by traditions that they can’t escape, even if they would like to. Yet they also think of their traditional way of life as something positive, and see the inherent virtues in preserving it. As the director points out, ‘the modern world of school is mysterious and uncertain whereas the agrarian world of marriage and farming is stable and proven, generation after generation’.

One of the roles of cinema is to introduce audiences to different ways of life and different points of view, and in this both films have succeeded admirably. Another role of cinema is to present stories which distil the essence of real life, and touch audiences profoundly; here, these films have succeeded in equal measure.

***

“Wadjda” and “Tall as the Baobab Tree” screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2012. Wadjda is in competition for The Sutherland Award for first feature.

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