Best Foreign Language Film Haifaa Al Mansour's 'Wadjda'

Inevitably Wadjda will be perceived as a political film because it represents a series of firsts. It's the first film to be completely shot in Saudi Arabia and the first Saudi Arabian film directed by a woman.


Director: Haifaa Al Monsour
Cast: Waad Mohammed, Reem Abdullah, Abdulrahman al-Guhani
Studio: Koch Media
Year: 2012
US Release Date: 2013-09-13

Saudi Arabian director Haifaa Al Mansour has expressed before that the main character of her debut film Wadjda is, surprisingly, not autobiographical. Why surprisingly? Because as performed by little Waad Mohammed, Wadjda feels so vibrant, her personality so honest and her emotions so real that it’s hard to fathom that she’s a fictitious creation. She’s the rare kind of character we could swear keeps on living after we leave the theater. In the film, Mohammed plays the title character, a rebellious girl with one major dream: to buy the green bicycle she sees every day on her way to school. The problem is that girls don’t ride bikes in Saudi Arabia, their use is reserved for boys and whenever Wadjda feels like riding a bike she has to borrow her friend’s (Abdullrahman Algohani) and do so in secret.

Then one day Wadjda receives divine intervention in the shape of a Qu’ran reciting contest, which offers a cash prize that would let her buy the bicycle. She enters the competition, setting the stage for a complex, if simply told, tale of what it’s like to desire freedom in a society that tells you it’s forbidden. “[Saudi Arabians] are very political in nature” explained Al Mansour when we spoke to her in mid-September, “people heard about the movie and they wanted to get involved” she added.

The first time feature length director (she had directed shorts and one documentary in the past) insisted from the start that she wanted to shoot her film in Saudi Arabia, even if she knew the process would be practically impossible to achieve. Since the 1980’s Saudi Arabia banned cinema, and it hasn’t been until the last couple of years that some movie houses have began to re-open. “A lot of people were talking about [the movie]” continued the director “[and] even if they didn’t know how to, they still wanted to help”. Like this she was able to assemble a functioning crew that sometimes had to shoot from inside of vans to prevent being discovered.

Watching the film however you don’t get a sense of this guerrilla approach, Al Mansour after all is a natural born aesthete (she studied comparative literature in Cairo and went to film school in Australia) who was able to continue the naturalistic aesthetics of cinema in her part of the world. When asked about whether she thought she would need to stop production, the usually high-spirited director lowered her voice, her tone becoming serious as she remembered “I was worried we would go bankrupt and we’d never finish the film”.

However she remained confident because she was sure that her movie wasn’t going against the culture, ““we lost locations, had delays in schedule, so many things seemed to go against us” she continued, “I tried not to make a political film”. Inevitably Wadjda will be perceived as a political film because it represents a series of firsts; it is the first film to be completely shot in Saudi Arabia and the first Saudi Arabian film directed by a woman. “I don’t want to fight, I want to make a film, I don’t want to defend ideologies” she expressed.

When asked about how she ended up becoming so obsessed with filmmaking, she laughed out loud and said “I loved Jackie Chan!”, growing up in a family made out of twelve children (she is number eight), their father - famous poet Abdul Rahman Mansour - would get access to films he would screen at home for all his children. “[We watched] a lot of duds, blockbusters” she explained, “lots of Hollywood movies”.

“[Growing up] I never thought I’d become a filmmaker” she continued, but as an adult she realized that there was something missing from the career she’d chosen, she entered a period of insatisfaction that forced her to pursue something that would make sense, “I wanted to be happy so I made a film!”. Continuing looking back at her childhood she revealed “when I was growing up I wrote plays” she said, “I was so happy [watching how others reacted to her work], and I remember wanting to write to make people laugh”.

For what it’s worth, Wadjda doesn’t feel like a director’s first feature film, it has a sense of purpose and assured direction that make it feel almost effortless. When asked about how she found aesthetic inspiration to achieve this docudrama feel, she added “[we had] no access to documentaries, nothing other than the mainstream, only blockbusters” she continued remembering how in awe she was of the visuals and the movie stars, before suddenly remembering that besides Chan, she also truly loved Bruce Lee.

The influence of American became evident again when we asked her about the process of casting Mohammed. “We didn’t use a casting agency, because there are no casting agencies” she explained, confessing that Mohammed got the part because she reminded her of her niece (not herself as critics would assume). She explained how the first time actress arrived to the audition already dressed like Wadjda, she showed up, did a test and told the adults present how she was obsessed with Justin Bieber, before proceeding to perform one of his songs for them. “She didn’t speak one word of English, but she knew the Justin Bieber song” remembered the director.

When asked about the way in which she approached writing characters as complex as Wadjda, her mother (played beautifully by Reem Abdullah) and a severe school headmistress (Ahd Kamel) Al Mansour explained “I try to focus on characters”. “[The story] is not about good people, the situations are much more complex” she added, before continuing about the way in which she found the perfect actors for her unique ensemble, “I try to find people and give them a story” she stated.

For some viewers, many of the concepts in the film might seem off putting, or well, foreign. We see how Wadjda’s father (Sultan Al Assaf) leaves her mother and marries another woman, simply because she can not give him a male heir. It would be easy to villainize or condemn characters like the father or the headmistress without understanding why they act like they do and in between laughs Al Mansour confessed “my fear is that it will get lost in translation”. However she believes her story is universal and accessible.

The day we spoke to the director, the film had just been selected to represent Saudi Arabia at this year’s Academy Awards. When asked about the prospect of maybe becoming the first Saudi filmmaker to be nominated for an Oscar, she humbly expressed “I’m just very grateful for this journey, I’ve met people I never expected to meet and everyone has been warm and kind to my movie”. She goes silent, stops to think and almost speaking to herself she added “I’m just happy to have a film out”.

* * *

Wadjda is now playing in select cities and will continue to expand throughout the season. Follow Haifaa Al Mansour on Twitter @haifaamansour

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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