Monday, 17 February 2014

Wadjda: a story for our times

Wadjda has been getting rave reviews since it was released in 2012. It is the first feature filmed entirely in Saudi Arabia (where cinema is banned) and the first written and directed by female Saudi director Haifaa al-Mansour.

In the way of great films, it shines light on a complex, difficult issue with a simple, yet clever allegorical storyline about a 10 year old girl who wants a bike --forbidden for girls in Saudi.

Wadjda is a heroine and a role model for women: she is cheeky, bold, entrepreneurial, an independent thinker. Most importantly she considers herself an equal to her friend Abdullah whom she can beat when racing --except when he is on his bike. Her response is to get her own bike even though, she is told time and again, girls do not ride bikes. She is not even thwarted by the huge cost, determined to raise the money somehow. When Abdullah offers to give her his bike, she rejects it ("How will I race you then?")

The movie follows Wadjda's efforts to raise money, which she does with a mix of enterprise, extortion and entering the school's Koran reading competition. She is discouraged and laughed at, but is single minded in her determination. It is not the men who are cast as the great oppressors in this: they have so little contact with the world of women that women's concerns are not even on their radar. Instead it is the collusion of women and culture in keeping women passive that Wadjda must battle. Her mother is preoccupied only with holding onto Wadjda's father, who is thinking of getting a second wife. She straightens her hair because he likes it long and silky and smiles with pride when complimented on the tray of food she prepares for his friends. She even refuses the chance of a job at the local hospital that would save her a hated 3 hour commute to work because her husband would be jealous if she were to work with other men.

Her mother's fear and conformity is magnified at school, where the dreaded Ms Hassan scolds girls not to laugh outside as they arrive at school, reminding that "a woman's voice is her nakedness." When playing in the courtyard at break, some girls notice workmen on a distant roof and scurry inside to protect their modesty. Wadjda does not rush in: she continues to play hopscotch, confident that it is her right to do so. At every turn Wadjda challenges and questions.

It is no surprise when, at the end, Wadjda finally gets her bicycle. To see that she has succeeded in her determination. The final scene is of Wadjda and Abdullah racing their bikes, Wadjda pulling ahead and flying at speed in a wonderful image of forward momentum, personal freedom and victory. She rides to the end of a t-junction and stops, looking both ways. The message is clear: where to now, ladies?

A final note: this was the first feature film ever shot in Saudi Arabia, written and directed by female director Haifaa al-Mansour, who had to hide herself when filming on the street. To produce such an excellent, assured film is a rarity anywhere: to have done so under these conditions is astonishing and an inspiration to women everywhere.

Monday, 10 February 2014

The Great White Middle Class Lit Festival

What on earth has happened to my beloved Bath Literature Festival? When I first moved here ten years ago, the festival was the literary highlight of my year. I would pounce on the programme as soon as it came through the door, pouring over the pages to see who was coming, which writers were being featured that year. New writers, different writers, literary writers --this was what the literature festival was all about. I could always count on a few events with obscure writers from far flung corners that promised to open up new worlds, allowing me to discover great new talents I would otherwise never have heard of.

Over the last few years, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me (budgets? creative directors? pressure from sponsors? collective lack of imagination?) this tradition has slowly disappeared. Instead of discovering new worlds and new writers, we are now invited to revisit the same worlds we see on our TVs or in the review section of our newspapers every week. We are invited to pay £10 to listen to the likes of Alan Titchmarsh flog his new book (really) or listen to one of many home-grown writers we can hear tuning into Radio 4 on a given week. Instead of embracing the world of writing in all its diversity, it is slowly closing in on itself and becoming an insular, dull affair.

This year, under the directorship of Viv Groskop, it has reached a new low. With the exception of Russian crime writer Boris Akunin and American Gary Shteyngart, there are no international fiction writers at the festival at all. There are certainly no African or Asian writers, none from Latin America. It is an almost exclusively white, middle class programme full of the kind of household names you can hear about and read about in the mainstream press on any day. It is less a literature festival than a publishers' clearinghouse of popular fiction where the focus is on bland, mainstream events catering to the lowest common denominator in the hopes they will pack the rooms to the rafters.

An example: A few years ago, I went to see Gyorgy Dragoman, a Hungarian writer I had never heard of, talk about his book The White King, about life as a child behind the iron curtain.There must have been a dozen people in the audience. After a terrific talk and reading, I rushed out to buy the book. Standing in the non existent queue to have my book signed by the author, Dragoman stood up, shook my hand and thanked me.  If it hadn't been for that event, I would never had discovered this wonderful book and writer and my life would be the poorer for it.

For those heading to the Bath Lit Festival this March, Germain Greer is already sold out, but tickets are still available for Jonathan Dimbleby and Philip Hensher....

Saturday, 1 February 2014

The Lowland

Just finished Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland, her second novel. I love love love her writing. She is in the upper echelon of outstanding short story writers, part of the enviable and elite group who know how to capture a story in the short form so perfectly, and seemingly without effort.

But as a novelist, I am sad to say I am less enthralled. The book is of course well written and I enjoyed it a great deal --it is impossible not to enjoy Lahiri's writing. But the story she tells over so many pages, the characters, their dilemmas, did not fully capture me. Or left me feeling a little unfulfilled somehow.

In the end, I don't really understand what motivated her to write this story, what it was she really wanted to say about these people, about their lives, their space in history, their movement across time and culture, their choices. By the end of the book I had rather tired of the characters and all their problems.

The message I took away from it? He died --get over it.