‘Captain Phillips,’ ‘Wadjda,’ ‘A Touch of Sin:’ Windows to a Globalized World

Captain Phillips
Paul Greengrass has carved out a niche for himself as a director of smart, political, white-knuckle action movies—combining the immediacy of documentary film-making with the scale and expert manipulation of the best studio thrillers. Most famous for the second and third Bourne movies, whose shaky-cam style has now become the (poorly-imitated) template for a decade of Hollywood action films, it’s the projects he made in between, specifically Bloody Sunday and United 93, that are the real thematic precursors to his latest offering: meticulously researched re-creations of explosive international incidents, that function as both edge-of-your-seat thrill rides and complex commentaries on the seemingly unsolvable ideological conflicts of our modern age.

What’s remarkable about Captain Phillips is how powerfully it reverberates beyond the confines of its tight, streamlined plot: the real-life hijacking of a US cargo ship by Somali pirates, and the subsequent kidnapping of its Captain. By showing the circumstances of the pirates’ lives—where working for the local warlord seems the only alternative to fishing the empty seas—and treating them as flesh and blood characters instead of traditional African villains (see Black Hawk Down, which treated the Somalis as faceless black zombies to be gunned down without consequence)—Captain Phillips somehow manages to make its incredibly tense story feel like the small ripple of a much larger economic problem. By the time the US Navy shows up with all its might, we get a shocking sense of what the unlimited power of the American Empire must look like to the poorer nations of the world, and the incredible, unforgiving disparity between them. By no means justifying the pirates’ actions, we get a clear sense of the desperation that drives them, and in Barkad Abdi’s electrifying performance as their leader Musa, a worthy counterpart to Tom Hank’s most un-showy, embodied role in years.

Ultimately, by choosing to end with the trauma of the aftermath rather than the uplift of victory, Hanks and Greengrass undo the myth of the indomitable American hero, leaving us with something far more human, moving, and troubling—our utter inability to stop the violent tide of an unequal, globalized world, no matter how large our military might be.


A Touch of Sin
Jia Zhangke’s seventh feature is the first to blend action-genre dynamics into his slow moving, critically adored meditations on life in modern China, with powerfully thrilling results. Taking four stories from the headlines, each detailing a character’s eventual spiral into violence, A Touch of Sin creates a multi-layered look at the cracking seams of China’s rush to capitalism, as greed, corruption and exploitation become the new normal. A disgruntled mine worker in a northern village, a wandering sociopath with a gun, a female receptionist in a sauna-cum-brothel, and a dead-end-job roaming youth—the four protagonists are only barely linked, their stories allowed to play out in their entirety, but what becomes fascinating is how the structure of each informs the other, so that by the second and third we know with absolute certainty that things will end in someone’s blood.
As with Paul Greengrass, Zhangke real interest lies in real-world, authentic, socio-political consequence, cleverly using genre tropes to hook the audience while he slips his larger message in. Beautifully filmed, compelling (though the first and third stories are definitely the most successful), and inevitably bleak, it’s amazing that this is the first film of this director’s to be actually financed by the Chinese government, given it’s devastatingly pessimistic look at the spiritual and moral corrosion of a rapidly expanding super-power, and all those left behind in its wake.


Haifaa Al-Mansour’s debut feature is impossible to separate from the fascinating circumstances of its making: a film about the repression of women’s voices in Saudi culture, made by a woman from within that very culture. And yet, thankfully, the film itself is a small gem of clever screenwriting and compassionate, well observed detail.

No doubt influenced by the neo-realist classic The Bicycle Thief, which similarly used a deceptively simple story of a child, a parent, and a bicycle to document the social mores and tensions of its setting —Wadjda essentially tells the story of a spunky 13-year-old girl’s quest to procure a bicycle, in a country where bike-riding —like almost every other activity—is seen as exclusively for men. While to a western viewer, witnessing the repressive force of the entrenched patriarchal system is both shocking and infuriating, Al-Mansour never preaches or rails against her country, but simply shows, through a child’s eyes, the small realities of her world, and the ways that all those within it—especially the women, interestingly—perpetuate its values.

Humane, funny, and never obvious, the film has a light, poetic touch, and a major trump card in its lead actress, who gives a thoroughly charming, complex performance as a young girl trying to reconcile the incoming media messages from Western culture with the constraints of her own society. And while it ends on a sweet, hopeful note, the film earns its optimism through the triumph of its very own existence: a Saudi woman asserting her creative voice despite the odds, and forging the way for others to do the same.


‘Wadjda’ Filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour on Her Groundbreaking Debut Feature

Without placing a heavy hand or forcing a feminist agenda, director Haifaa Al-Mansour has crafted a truly radical film that, within its first week of release, has already made history. As her feature-length directorial debut, Al-Mansour’s Wadjda has not only made her the first Saudi Arabian female filmmaker, but the first to shoot an entire film within the Kingdom. Hailing from a country steeped in a history of female oppression, where women’s independence is extremely limited, not only has Al-Mansour bypassed the boundaries of her sex, but has been working to expose the art of cinema to a place where culture has condemned its presence. 

And although her film paints an authentic and vulnerable look at Saudi life as a repressive world where women remain in the second class, the female characters are never victims—simply people trying to challenge their means. But for all the film’s honesty and desire to not shy away from the struggles of everyday life, Saudi has chosen Wadjda to be its selection for their official Academy Award nomination—an incredible feat for any director, regardless of nationality or gender.
But it’s not only the political undertones that have made Al-Mansour’s film one of the most critically-acclaimed and anticipated releases of the year; it’s the warmth that radiates from the film and the hope that comes from acknowledging the power of personal strength. With Wadjda, Al-Mansour takes a complex and expansive set of themes and issues and expresses them through a simplistic lens. Focusing on a ten-year-old girl—played wonderfully by Waad Mohammed—Wadjda, who will stop at nothing to buy herself a bike, the film transcends to a metaphor for perserverance in the face of society’s adversity and the challenges women face.
Last week we sat down with the 39-year-old director to discuss how her own childhood informed the film, the responsibility to representation, and the vibrancy of Saudi stories.
Growing up in a place where your access to cinema was very limited, how did you develop a love for it and decide this is what you wanted to pursue? 
I really didn’t decide that this was what I wanted, exactly. After I finished college I went back to work and felt so invisible. As a person you want to find your place and you have all this energy and you wonder why the world is not listening, but in Saudi especially it’s really hard for a woman. I wanted to take a hobby and so made a short film, It was no budget, with a small camera, and my brother holding the camera and all that. But I submitted it to a competition in Abu Dabi and they called me and accepted the film and I was really excited and happy. I went there and when they saw me, they said, “You’re the first Saudi filmmaker!” and everybody wanted to talk to me. So that gave me a voice and it was something that naturally carried on and I really enjoyed it.
How much of Wadjda was informed by your own adolescent experience? Did you grow up in a more liberal environment?
We lived in a small town, we went to public schools, and my parents are very traditional but liberal. We were very middle class, we didn’t grow up traveling to Europe, we were in that small town but they were kind enough to let me do things, and that is what made me dream of becoming a filmmaker and made it possible for me. Everything in the film about the school is from the the school I attended and the little girl I based on my niece. Everybody in the film is coming straight from my life, and I felt it was important to give a real documentary feel to the film because I wanted to open a slice of life in Saudi.
Did you also want to make a film that could speak to a large, international audience but also to shine a light on the treatment of women and those that try to go beyond their circumstances?
Of course. I wanted to tell a story that was engaging, but I also wanted to tell a story about people who are not victims. They’re trying to change and are hopeful and believe in themselves and willing to challenge. There’s enough in the Middle East showing women as victims that receive everything and are helpless and cannot change their situations, but it’s not impossible if you try. It is difficult, it’s a tough place, but they should not give up.
The film has a very complex, very strong message but show through the simplistic lens of a little girl trying to get herself a bike. Did you set out to use this intimate story to convey a larger message?

That is exactly what I wanted to do, to have something simple and project more about the culture and open a window to Saudi, because it’s closed and people don’t know so much about it.
Did you have a personal childhood experience with a bike that sparked the idea for this?

When I was a kid I went with my father to buy a bicycle for my brothers and I saw a green bicycle. My father didn’t care, but the guy selling it didn’t like it, he thought my father making the wrong choice, but I got it. However, I wasn’t allowed to ride my bicycle outside the home, only in the backyard. But the idea came because I wanted to show the tension between modernity and tradition and how Saudi appears to be modern because its a rich country—every kid has an iPad and everything—but they’re very traditional. For me, it’s the contrast between the real modernity—the heart of modernity for being independence, for believing in individuality—and then the surface modernity, which is the consumption of technology and all that. I felt that was very interesting. 
How did you go about casting Wadjda and her mother? 
The mother (Reem Abdullahis) a famous TV star in Saudi, and all the actors already made the decision to be on TV. But the girl, finding her was difficult and we relied on a lot of people telling us if they knew someone because there are no casting agencies. She came in almost one week before the principal shooting, and she had messy hair and all that, and it was really cool and nice because Saudi people, if they’re coming to an audition, are usually all made up. So it was nice to see this person who literally just woke up and came in. Then she just had a charisma and an amazing voice. 
I imagine there’s a great pleasure in working with young actors because they’re so in the moment.

Absolutely.  And I based the film a lot on my niece, so I tried to find someone that looked like her. Not in the way she looks only, but in her spirit, so it was easier to find someone who fits the character. And she’s very smart.
Can you tell me about the difficulties of shooting the film and being a woman in these areas where you’re not supposed to be working?

Well, dealing with the actresses was good because they’d never dealt with a female director before. There was an intimacy and they opened up and it was nice—that was very touching. But when we were outside—the country is segregated, men and women aren’t supposed to work together in public—I had to be in a van and have a walkie talkie. It was frustrating because I’m confined and everybody’s out having fun working. So it was difficult sometimes but worth it. But the country is opening up and there is a place for women and for art, and it’s good to be part of what is happening. 
Do you feel a responsibility because you’re the filmmaker representing Saudi and the one with that voice?
I’m sure there is responsibility, but my concern is not to offend them. I know Saudi’s are very conservative and don’t like cinema, so I wanted to make a movie that showed respect to them. I also want them to be a part of it, I want them to love it and not to feel like it’s enough that I’m making a film—which is against the culture—but also not to expose them, as much as to tell their stories.
Well I’m sure you’re an inspiration for many, many women there. But for women who are artists and challenging convention is there a strong community of those people growing?
Oh, yeah. We have a lot writers and columnists and a lot of women growing in different fields, especially now that the country is opening up there are more opportunities for women. So small changes. And in April they allowed women to bicycle, it was amazing.
What will the film’s exposure be like for those back home?
They will see it on DVD  and on TV and theatrically it will open in countries around Saudi. We did some cultural screenings in Saudi and we showed it to kids to bring in the concept in film, but still Saudi Arabia is far from having commercial cinema. 
Were there are films that served as inspirations for the story on a basic level?
Yeah. I love the Bicycle Thief, I think it’s an amazing story. Italian neorealism just fits Saudi because it’s open and about life. 
How was it been taking the film around to festivals and getting to share it all over the world?
It’s been an amazing journey just to be able to take the film around. It opened in everywhere I can’t believe I’m here in New York, it’s unreal. I’m very grateful for this experience.
Were a lot of the people in the film locals to try and capture a more authentic feeling?
Of course, yes, even when I was writing the dialogue I tried to bring in how Saudi’s speak in their houses. We have this persona of when you go to public you have to compose yourself and have to speak in a certain way, but when you’re home there is a different vocabulary—that’s probably in a lot of places but maybe in Saudi it’s more striking. So I tried to bring this kind of intimacy to the film.
How did the communities in which you were shooting react to you being there making a film?
Differently. Some communities were upset, they chased us out and we had to go back because we’d already  filmed half of a scene. So we’d wait until they’d leave and then go back. But some neighborhoods were amazing and came up with food and water and they wanted to take pictures, so it was nice.
Do you want to keep telling these stories and making films in Saudi, or would you like to expand?
I would love to expand! I would love to work in Hollywood and do a blockbuster. It’s my dream to do something like that. But I have to tell stories from Saudi. It’s such amazing place, there is so many layers of religion and politics. It’s so rich and vibrant to tell stories from there.