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Monday, August 26, 2019

Beyond the Canon: Wadjda + Alice in the Cities

It is no secret that the cinema canon has historically skewed toward lionizing the white, male auteur. Beyond the Canon is a monthly series that seeks to question that history and broaden horizons by pairing one much-loved, highly regarded, canonized classic with a thematically or stylistically-related—and equally brilliant—work by a filmmaker traditionally excluded from that discussion. This month’s double feature pairs Haifaa al-Mansour’s Wadjda (2012) with Wim Wenders’ Alice in the Cities (1974).

By Simran Hans

The bicycle is Christmas tree–green and shiny, its ribbon-festooned handlebars wrapped in new-toy plastic. It is the bike of 10-year-old Wadjda’s (Waad Mohammed) daydreams, so perfect it’s as though she wished it into existence. It appears like a dream, too, seeming to cycle itself along a brick wall. The bike, it turns out, is being carried by a truck; it’s not a magic trick after all. She follows the bike to find it for sale, priced at a very real 800 riyal.

In the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, little girls weren’t allowed to ride bikes until 2013 (the ban was lifted a year after Wadjda’s release). Still, Wadjda imagines herself cycling, racing her best friend, a little boy named Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), and winning. In writer-director Haifaa al-Mansour’s 2012 fiction debut, the entrepreneurial Wadjda’s get-rich-quick schemes to purchase the bike include selling hand-braided bracelets and delivering notes at school, but when she sees that a Quran recital competition has a prize of 1000 riyal, she signs up for “religious club.” This little girl is taking matters into her own hands.


The little girl in Wim Wenders’ 1974 road movie Alice in the Cities is a little younger than Wadjda. We meet 9-year-old Alice (Yella Rottländer) in the revolving door of an airport. She chases the film’s protagonist, German journalist Philip Winter (Rüdiger Vogler), in playful circles, foreshadowing the rings she will run around him in the coming days. Shortly after this meeting, her mother, Lisa (Lisa Kreuzer), leaves her in Philip’s charge as the three journey separately from New York back to West Germany, via Amsterdam. It is Alice who will lead them to her grandmother’s house in Wuppertal, telling her driver “When I see it, I will know.” Alice thinks she is in charge, too.

Al-Mansour is particularly interested in those who seize their own destinies; she tells stories about rebellious young women and their attempts to liberate themselves from their conservative environments. At the time of its release, Wadjda was widely praised for breaking new ground; it is the first feature to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, and the first feature-length Saudi film to be directed by a woman. Al-Mansour had to direct all outside scenes from within a van, communicating with her crew via a monitor and a walkie-talkie. Her next feature, The Perfect Candidate, which will premiere at the Venice International Film Festival next month, is a comedy-drama about a Saudi woman who runs for office in a local election.


If Al-Mansour is obsessed with those constricted by society, Wenders might be described as training his eye on those who choose to leave it behind. Both filmmakers are drawn to characters who seem out of step with their surroundings. In Alice, it’s Winter who doesn’t fit, a tourist in America, the polaroid camera that hangs around his neck a buffer between him and the world. In Al-Mansour’s, it’s Wadjda who is the outsider, wide shots often depict her alone, the sole figure in shot. Yet though Wadjda’s separateness is visually emphasised, her expression remains hopeful. Speaking to NPR, Al-Mansour emphasised that while many films about the Middle East depict its horrors, it was important to her “to make a film that is happy.”

A bike would allow Wadjda to participate in the games from which she’s otherwise been excluded. Indeed, it’s no coincidence that Al-Mansour chooses the bicycle as Wadjda’s totem. This, along with her use of real locations, non-professional actors, and a child protagonist who bears witness to the problems of the present day, means Wadjda both recalls and references Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves, another film that invests symbolic power and the promise of social mobility in the bicycle.

Alice in the Cities

“Children have a sort of admonitory function in my films: to remind you [that] with curiosity and lack of prejudice it is possible to look at the world,” said Wenders in his 2001 essay and interview collection On Film. Wadjda, like Alice, performs this function. The patriarchal culture that governs Wadjda’s world doesn’t make sense to her. Her brow crinkles with confusion when an old man catcalls her in the street; her jaw visibly drops when her teacher reveals her pre-arranged plan for the prize money. “And if you disagree over anything, refer it to Allah and the messenger,” mumbles Wadjda, without conviction, unable to speak words she doesn’t believe.

Join us for Beyond the Canon on Sat, Aug 31 at 2pm.

Simran Hans is a writer and film critic for The Observer. She lives in London.

Upcoming Beyond the Canon screening:

Sat, Sep 14 at 2pm
Invisible Adversaries
Dir. Valie Export
1977, 109min
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Dir. Philip Kaufman
1978, 115min, 35mm

Images of Wadjda (2012) courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics and Alice in the Cities (1974) courtesy of Janus Films/Photofest.
© 2019 Brooklyn Academy of Music, Inc. All rights reserved.


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