July 17, 2013

Film review. An analysis of the cinematography of Wadjda by Haifaa Al-Mansour

Wadjda, released as "The green bicycle" in some countries, was presented in last Venice Film Festival; it is the first film entirely shot in Saudi Arabia and the first to be directed by a Saudi woman, something extraordinary in a country were women can't vote, drive, show their face to men or even ride a bicycle.

The plot. A 10 years old Saudi girl, Wadjda, is determined to buy a green bicycle that captured her interest. In order to raise money  to fulfil her dream, she signs off for her school's Koran recitation competition trying to win the cash price for the first place.

Cinematography: Lutz Reitemeier
Camera: Arri Alexa
Lenses: Zeiss Master Prime
Aspect ratio:1.85:1
Format: Arriraw
Film Stock: -

Wadjda is the first film by Haifaa Al-Mansour, who started to be recognized as a film-maker in Germany and Holland after winning some competitions with a short-film and screening a documentary about Arabic women in several festivals. This is one of the reason why the production is German and so it is the cinematography crew. Lutz Reitemeier is chosen as cinematographer: he has a modest filmography, basically German documentaries and Asian films, so Wadjda may be considered as his first film internationally recognized.
Being a German, there's no surprise he chose to shoot with an Alexa and Zeiss Master primes, whose sharp image he diffused with filters. Since the beginning of the film, Reitemeier uses a very natural look, rooted in his background as documentary cinematographer: the camera is like a voyeur who leads us in the street of Riyadh, into places where no man is allowed to enter, into the ordinary life of the characters. The story is told in a simple way, without pretension nor looking for effectiveness: camera barely moves,when it does it is on steadycam following the characters, and it is always placed in positions which are as objective as possible, unless for the very wide shots, in which Wadjda walks alone, and stands out, trough desolated and ruined Arabic urban landscapes, symbolizing her solitude fight for her dreams as a person and rights as a woman against the deep rooted Arabic traditions.

In some of these shots, thou, the focal plane is not parallel to the subject plane, creating disturbing converging lines, probably produced by the hurry they had to shoot in a country where shooting is not common at all, and the presence of women in the street (the main characters and the director are women) is allowed under certain conditions and never with men who are not family.

The use of light is natural too used as they normally do for a documentary; while the interior shots are illuminated with artificial light which is always soft, the exteriors are lit with natural daylight, sometimes harsh and sometimes soft light is used not for storytelling reasons but rather according to climate conditions. In either cases, both in interior and exterior shots, Reitemeier's concern was to get the correct exposure, meaning for correct the average one, the sufficient exposure to record the image with enough brightness rather than to enhance the story visually. So, his cinematography limits itself to accompany the story in the most natural way without really supporting it. However, it has to be reminded that the shooting conditions weren't the optimal: apart from the problems earlier mentioned (Al-Mansour had to direct hidden in a van, for example) in Saudi Arabia theatres are prohibited, so I guess there are no cinematographic material renting company, which implies that they had to shoot with almost no means; this may explain the use of photographic lens instead of cinema ones in some shots where lens breathing is evident.
I reckon Wadjda should be seen without caring too much about the technical stuff and just follow the story of this little girl chasing her dream, a green bicycle. By the the way green is the colour of freedom, the freedom achieved trough knowledge: a great metaphor of women condition in Saudi Arabia (a reference to The Last Emperor?).
Wadjda is a fine film capable to take us into a secret and unknown world (at least for the most of us) definitely worth seeing, where we realize that the problems people have in countries so far away and different from the places we live in, don't differ that much from our owns.

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