Saturday, 8 March 2014
FILM OVERVIEW: TRACKS AND WADJDA
2013 was a great year for female roles in film, which is to say a better than average list of films boasting strong female characters. And even if the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences chose more safely from among those eligible for the Best Actress Oscar (Cate Blanchett's turn in Blue Jasmine excepted), that there were more than five to choose from is something of a victory in and of itself.
Early in 2014 and that trend of strong-willed, independent and even spunky heroines looks set to continue with Tracks (Transmission Films, now showing) and Wadjda (Hopscotch Films, March 20), the latter a 2013 title which makes its way into Australian cinemas after a successful festival run and awards campaign around the world (although, ironically, one which did not end with a much-anticipated Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film).
Tracks, directed by John Curran and adapted by Marion Nelson from the bestselling book by Robyn Davidson, depicts the infamous journey of Davidson (a perfectly-cast Mia Wasikowska) who, in 1977, trekked from Alice Springs to Uluru (then still called Ayers Rock) then westward across the West Australian desert to the Indian Ocean, some 1,700 miles in mostly searing heat (the landscape beautifully photographed here by Mandy Walker).
The daughter of a one-time adventurer, Robyn is determined to learn how to train the camels which will accompany her on her trek, and complete the adventure on her own. Well, as much as humanly possible. Four camels and her trusty dog, Diggity, will accompany her. And when aboriginal custom dictates, an elder, Eddie (Roly Mintuma), will guide her through sacred land.
Though he speaks little English, Robyn finds Eddie far more agreeable company than Rick Smolan (Adam Driver), the photographer whom National Geographic, who are bankrolling the expedition, have assigned to document Robyn's journey across the interior; Rick's frequent rendezvous' with Robyn becoming more and more appreciated as the elements and events begin to take their toll on the young woman who, like Garbo, simply wants to be alone.
"You could die out there", suggests more than one doubter before she departs, to which Robyn replies not so much with words but a silent, inner shrug. Robyn doesn't have a death wish but she has somewhat of an accepting fatalism. The destination isn't the point of the journey but nor, it seems, is survival.
Wasikowska, an interesting looking actress who continues to choose interesting projects (2010's Alice In Wonderland excepted), has the ability to convey a great deal whilst saying very little. As the voice-over narration lessens and the journey progresses, it's left to Wasikowska's searching eyes and weather-beaten face (not to mention Walker's exceptional lensing work) to chart the physical, psychological and emotional terrain, the occasional and not entirely necessary childhood flashback withstanding.
Not so epic but no less ambitious is young Wadjda's desire to own a bicycle, specifically the green-framed model with the streamers on the handlebars which sits out front of her neighbourhood toy store in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. It costs 800 riyals but Wadjda, an enterprising young lass played perfectly by Waad Mohammed, isn't about to let money or dogma-based sexism -- women don't ride bikes! -- deter her from her goal: not just to own a bike but to race her best (male) friend, Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani).
It would be easy, and understandable, to equate young Wadjda's ambitions with those of the film's writer-director, Haifaa Al-Mansour, not only the first woman to direct a film in Saudi Arabia but the first person, period. Cinema has been banned in the Middle Eastern country for some 30 years. And in a country where women aren't even permitted to drive, making a film or indeed, riding a push bike, are near revolutionary acts.
Yet as political as Wadjda is -- how can it not be? -- Al-Mansour is never heavy-handed with her message of female self-empowerment nor the oppressive State in which her young heroine finds herself living. Smart, entrepreneurial and flexible, Wadjda knows how to get what she wants. Not one for religious observance (she finds the headscarf an annoyance more than anything), Wadjda seizes on the opportunity to enter a Koran recitation competition when she learns the prize money is a much needed 1,000 riyals.
A Hollywood film would make this competition and the heroine's preparation the focus of the story but Al-Mansour chooses to observe Wadjda as she goes about her school and home life; the young heroine witnessing her mother's struggle to please a husband who must first please his family by finding a second wife to bear him a son; her elder peers' struggle to reconcile their faith with adolescent preoccupations like magazines, nail polish and boys; and the easy way in which Abdullah moves through the world simply because he is male. Although a kind-hearted boy who promises to marry Wadjda when they're old enough, he's no match for the young lady on any level.
Like The Rocket last year (both films screening at the Sydney Film Festival), Wadjda is a crowd pleaser but in the best sense of the word. It's appeal and emotions are universal and not lowest common denominator; you'll boast a huge smile and maybe be a little misty-eyed at film's end because you actually care about young Wadjda and her hopes and dreams.
Here's hoping 2014 brings more films like Tracks and Wadjda, and even more female characters like their heroines: independent, single-minded, strong-willed and smart.