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Of fundamentalism and the bike

Samir Farid reviews two of the Venice Film Festival’s most relevant features

Changez with Erica
Though screened outside the official competition, The Reluctant Fundamentalist opened the 69th Venice Film Festival. Directed by Mira Nair, funded by the Doha Film Institute (DFI) and produced by the world-known Tunisian Tarek Ben Ammar (who produced such hits as Julian Schnabel’s Miral, on the Palestinian issue since the 1948 war), The Reluctant Fundamentalist is no doubt the greatest accomplishment to date of the DFI. No doubt the Hollywood style of the film will help with its distribution throughout the world, achieving the principal aim of the DFI.

Mira Nair belongs with that line of filmmakers who seem to see the whole world as an appropriate subject – a family of many generations founded by Orson Welles in the middle of last century; it also includes the German Warner Herzog and the Pole Roman Polanski. It is not that these directors give up or revoke their national sense of identity. It is rather that they internalise it, looking at the many and various settings in which their films take place from that perspective. Born in 1957 in India, Nair graduated from Delhi and Harvard and quickly made a name in world cinema with her first full-length feature film in 1988, Salam Bombay which won the golden camera at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for the best foreign Oscar. It was seen as a turning point in Indian cinema, the first to deal with street children in a contemporary and realistic style. In 2001, Nair won Venice’s Golden Lion for Monsoon Wedding, whose subject was the Indian community in America. She has always paid attention to the issue of cross-cultural differences, expressing her belief in the necessity of dialogue as opposed to conflict. It was therefore not surprising that she should tackled this issue head-on in her new film on 9/11, based on Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 bestselling novel.

It is a detective thriller, generically speaking, yet it is really a political film. Contrary to Brecht’s dictum that one shouldn’t express political positions in a non-political way, this is what Nair does – and it works. Changez (Riz Ahmed) is a Pakistani young man from a rich family in Lahore. He loves American culture and believes in the American dream, and is able to have a go at realising it when he goes to New York, which he does: He quickly makes it in Wall Street, becoming very successful in the corporate world. He falls in love with Erica (Kate Hudson), a photographer who has lost her lover in drunk-driving car accident (she was driving); she finds in Changez the saviour she needs. Because of his looks and name, after 9/11, however, Changez’s life in New York becomes unbearable; he even loses Erica. Changez decides to return to his home country where, working as a university professor, he undergoes a dramatic transformation of character in a very short period of time, quickly becoming a committed member of a jihadi organisation.

The action starts in Lahore in 2011, when an American professor is kidnapped and the abductors threaten to slaughter him. The journalist Bobby (Live Schereiber) is assigned by the CIA to locate the hostage through conversations with Changez, whom he also invites to work with the CIA. Through a review of the past, the viewer finds out about Changez’s life starting from when he travels to New York – the conversation between the two men framing the entire film – with frequent flashbacks. At the end the hostage is saved; in the process one of Changez’s students is killed. Bobby is injured and taken to an American hospital in Afghanistan. All through Nair’s film the detective prevails over the political, so much so that politics becomes a backdrop that doesn’t really touch the core of the drama. Changez’s transformation is in no way convincing; the ending is unresolved and wrought with tension, with fundamentalism less than clearly defined or understood.
Bahija Hafez was the first woman to raise the Egyptian flag over the Venice Film Festival headquarters in 1937, with Laila bin Al-Sahra (Laila: Daughter of the Desert), which she produced and starred in with Mario Volpi. So too was Haifaa Al-Mansour, who is the first woman to raise the Saudi flag in the same place with Wadjda selected for the Horizons competition. The film is an amazing surprise, proving that its maker is a true cinematic talent. It is the story of a 12-year-old girl wants to drive a bike despite that being prohibited for women in Saudi Arabia. Yet the film is as deep as its storyline is simple. Al-Mansour was born in 1974, the daughter of a poem, Abdel-Rahman Al-Mansour, who encouraged her love of film from an early age; she studied comparative literature at the American University in Cairo, moving onto Sydney, Australia, to study filmmaking. She made three short films before making her first feature-length documentary, Nissaa Bila Dhill (Women without Shadows) in 2006. Like Wadjda in the fiction category, this was the first full-length documentary to be shot in Saudi Arabia. Predictably, Al-Mansour was subject to attacks by the more conservative elements in society depicted in “Women without Shadows”.
Wadjda is set in Riyadh at the present time, where Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) spends her time between the house where she lives with her mother (Reem Abdullah) and father, the preparatory school where she spends time with her teacher Hessah (Ahd) and the street where she plays with another prep student, Abdulla (Abdullrahman Al-Gohani). Wadjda suffers from the patriarchal repression of Saudi society: she only very rarely sees her father (who remains nameless in the film); she sympathises her mother’s fear of said father marrying another woman who will give him a son. In the family tree hanging on the wall, Wadjda cannot locate any female names; when she writes her own name on a piece of paper and sticks it next to her father’s, she finds it torn on the ground the next day. At school she listens to Hessah telling the girls how a woman’s hair and voice are both taboo and that songs are prohibited by God. The girls chatter about a thief arrested in Hessah’s house who wasn’t actually a thief but her lover. On the street we see Abulla overtaking Wadjda on his bike (since she is walking), which instills in the girl the desire to have her own bike. At a shop she finds out the bike costs 800 Riyals; she starts saving, asking Abulla to teach her to drive on the roof – but in the end she doesn’t manage to save the amount required to make the purchase.

To make money, Wadjda acts as a courier for two lovers, receiving 20 Riyals from each when she delivers the letter. The next day, overhearing her mother on the phone, she finds out that the religious police have arrested the young man and woman. The solution comes when the school announces a Quranic learning and recitation competition which Wadjda wins, earning 1,000 Riyals. Before she receives her prize, however, Hessah takes her aside to ask how she intends to spend the money. She tells her she will buy a bike that she has seen in the shop, enraging the teacher so much that she announces she will donate the amount to Palestinian aid. Shocked, the girl asks Hessah about the thief who was caught in her house. The social picture becomes complete with the Pakistani driver who drives Wadjda’s mother to work (Saudi men are not allowed to mix with women in any context, so non-Saudi men – perhaps assumed to be not quite male – fill the void. At one point the woman gets angry with the driver and dismisses him but she cannot find a replacement; Wadjda and Abdulla visit him to persuade him to return to his job, and when he refuses Abdulla threatens him so he gives in. The film ends with Wadjda spotting her mother smoking a cigarette on the roof and trying to hide her tears, eventually confessing that the father is getting married again and pointing to a corner of the roof where she has bought her a bike. When she races Abdulla, Wadjda wins – and this is the first view of the open horizon and the sky that the viewer has had since the beginning of the film.