In the Saudi Arabian movie “Wadjda,” the 10-year-old title character has to be reminded that girls shouldn’t speak aloud where men might hear them, wear their hair uncovered where men might see them, or even ride bicycles.
In the Venezuelan feature “Liz in September,” a group of lesbian women escapes society’s judgmental eye while one of them plans her death from cancer.
The directors of these films have lifted figurative and literal veils on other realities and, in so doing, have overcome bans, prejudices and obstacles to share their identities, histories, ideas and visions with us.
“Wadjda” was touted as the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, a fact made even more significant because its director, Haifaa al-Mansour, is a woman. She reportedly had to shoot exterior scenes from inside a van where she wouldn’t come in physical contact with male members of her crew.
But, as she told Screen International in 2012, “It is very important to bring the concept of film to this country. Film makes people more tolerant and gives them pride.”
Biking toward Freedom
Recently, the Saudi crown prince lifted a 35-year ban on movie theaters and announced other reforms, including letting women drive, attend sporting events and take physical education in school.
Wadjda would approve. In the film, she schemes to earn cash doing random tasks and selling knick-knacks to fulfill her dream of buying a bike. She wants to race her best friend, a neighborhood boy who enjoys all the privileges and freedoms his gender and well-connected family offer him.
Wadjda says she’d trade the 70 brides supposedly waiting for a martyr after his death for 70 bikes, even though her mother warns that girls who ride bikes can’t have children. She goes so far as to register to compete in a school religious competition to win 1,000 Saudi riyals.
She sweet-talks and cajoles, stands up for herself and others, and confronts hypocrisy as best she can. You can’t help but root for her every step of the way.
Newcomer Waad Mohammed carries the film, appearing in every scene and making her character’s feisty antics, like pinning her name to the branch of a men-only family tree, seem simultaneously innocent and wise.
What creates tension in the movie, besides the vindictive principal who seems to have it in for Wadjda, is the glimpse of the future we get based on the women in the girl’s life. If they are any measure, Wadjda will have to lose both her innocence and some of her spunk to resign herself to a woman's life in Saudi Arabia.
Yet in the film’s bittersweet finale, al-Mansour provides a glimmer of hope for the next generation.
Combined with the recent reforms in the country, the very fact that she got this film made and successfully exported – it screened in numerous festivals, became Saudi Arabia’s first-ever nomination to the foreign-language Oscar and is currently streaming on Amazon – offers more reason for hope.
Living and Dying with Dignity
The attractive “Liz En Septiembre” adapts the pioneering lesbian play, “Last Summer at Bluefish Cove” by Jane Chambers, to the Venezuelan coast.
The “Liz” of the title is the de facto leader of a group of female friends and lovers who vacation together in a small beach town. When Eva, stuck in a cheerless marriage after the death of her young son, gets stranded overnight in the town, she finds herself falling for Liz. But Liz is dying of the same cancer that took Eva’s son, one of several secrets the women are hiding.
Director Fina Torres and her cast handle the tale of love and death with delicacy and a dreamily gentle pace that befits the tropical setting.
Torres also has a gorgeous eye for framing shots with poetry and grace, sending her camera deep under water, slow-motion down palm tree-lined country roads and high into the humid sky.
But that same aesthetic eye and subtle narrative touch ultimately detract from the story’s realism. The cast appears to be (and in some cases actually is) comprised of models, their pastel-tinged beachfront cabañas would make the Property Brothers drool, and Eva’s love affair with Liz isn’t developed fully enough to carry the weight of the tale’s end.
Still, it feels like a miracle that Torres got this movie made just a few years ago in Venezuela, a country suffering such a deep crisis that it was recently included in Trump’s travel ban 3.0. Streaming on Netflix, “Liz” is a pleasurable and rewarding watch.
This column originally ran in The Daily Record.