Monday, September 30, 2013

‘Wadjda’ inspires us to claim our power

“Wadjda” (2012 production, 2013 release). Cast: Waad Mohammed, Reem Abdullah, Sultan Al Assaf, Ahd, Abdullrahman Al Gohani, Nouf Saad, Sara Aljabar, Dana Abdullilah, Rehab Ahmed, Rafa Al Sanea, Alanoud Sajini, Mohammed Zahir, Mohammed Alkhozain. Director: Haifaa Al Mansour. Screenplay: Haifaa Al Mansour. Web site. Trailer.

It’s easy to allow ourselves to feel disempowered, especially under conditions where we feel as though our will has been sucked out from underneath us. That can be particularly daunting to those who operate under circumstances that are oppressive and seemingly unrelenting. Claiming our rightful power in those instances can be challenging, but it is possible, as long as we believe in the idea, a notion explored in the heartwarming new release, “Wadjda.”

Buying a new bike shouldn’t be a big deal, but, if you’re a young girl in Saudi Arabia, it’s a lot easier said than done. The prevailing wisdom maintains that youthful members of the so-called fairer sex shouldn’t engage in an activity as risky as riding a bicycle for fears that “it might compromise their virtue.” In fact, it’s just one of many everyday activities considered taboo that Westerners take for granted. Going against such cultural prohibitions is something most Saudi women wouldn’t think of challenging, but not Wadjda (Waad Mohammed). She simply won’t have it.

To buy or not to buy? That’s the question faced by Saudi schoolgirl Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) when it comes to purchasing a bicycle for herself, a culturally radical act, in the heartwarming new release, “Wadjda.” Photo by Tobias Kownatzki © Razor Film, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

The tomboyish schoolgirl’s quest to acquire this dangerous piece of equipment arises from a dare she puts to her neighbor, Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), who playfully taunts Wadjda while riding his bike. She wants one of her own so she can challenge him to a race, a contest she’s certain she’d win. But, when Wadjda tells her mother (Reem Abdullah) of her plan, she’s chastised for even thinking about such a ludicrous, heretical notion. It’s bad enough that she wants to expose herself to such a needlessly risky venture, but it’s even worse that her proposal involves Abdullah. After all, any public interaction – even talking – with him (or any male, for that matter) is a morally reprehensible act for a young girl, one that could get her shamed or even killed.

If Wadjda is ever to get her bike, she’s going to have to do so on her own (and, given the “radical” nature of her plan, quietly at that). In particular, she needs to keep below the radar at school and the ever-watchful eye of head mistress Ms. Hussa (Ahd), who never hesitates to delve out severe tongue lashings to her girls for even the slightest of moral infringements. To fulfill her goal, Wadjda clandestinely pursues various entrepreneurial opportunities, such as making football bracelets out of yarn, creations that produce modest amounts of money. But, to raise the substantial funds required for her purchase, she needs to find an opportunity that will provide a significant infusion of cash.

In challenging her neighbor, Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani, right), to a bike race, Saudi schoolgirl Wadjda (Waad Mohammed, left) breaches cultural taboos rife with potentially sweeping consequences, as depicted in the heartwarming new film, “Wadjda.” Photo by Tobias Kownatzki © Razor Film, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

That chance comes with the announcement of the school’s annual Koran recitation competition, in which an ample monetary prize is to be awarded to the winner. As someone whose knowledge of the holy book is fair at best, Wadjda seems an unlikely candidate for the contest. But, with her goal on the line, she zealously begins studying the Koran. Wadjda’s religion teacher (Nouf Saad) is impressed with her student’s rapid improvement, warning other contestants that she’s a worthy contender. Ms. Hussa is favorably impressed as well, encouraged that her once-troublesome pupil has finally seen the light and turned a significant behavioral corner. Little do any of them know, however, what Wadjda really has in mind. The scope of her intention has implications that go beyond the mere acquisition of a bike, and even she may not be fully aware of what they are or the extent of their reach. But, as everyone will soon see, her accomplishments will have effects that are felt far and wide at home and at school and, potentially, even at the grass-roots level of Saudi society.

Wadjda’s story is a classic illustration of a conscious creator determined to push boundaries and break through the barriers of limiting beliefs. While she’s never callous or blatantly disrespectful in her efforts, she also doesn’t see any reason to blindly adhere to prevailing dictates just because someone tells her so. She’s merely following her own heart and her own sense of personal integrity to manifest that which she will. That’s something all of us should aspire to in our materialization efforts, and Wadjda provides a powerful example to follow.

Much of Wadjda’s success comes from the passion that fuels her beliefs. She’s so focused on attaining her objectives that her determination never wavers, despite whatever obstacles pop up in her way. Ironically, those roadblocks actually serve a valuable purpose as compelling motivators, keeping her committed to her intended path. This effectively shows us how maintaining enthusiasm for our beliefs is crucial to see the manifestation process through to completion.

Tomboyish Saudi schoolgirl Wadjda (Waad Mohammed, right) often gets frustrated when reined in by her more conservative, traditionalist mother (Reem Abdullah, left) in director Haifaa Al Mansour’s debut fictional feature, “Wadjda.” Photo by Tobias Kownatzki © Razor Film, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Above all, though, Wadjda’s odyssey is an inspiration to anyone who’s willing to question the status quo, not just when it comes to a matter as simple as making a purchase, but also to engaging in calculated acts of defiance. On some level, she sees the bike as an implement of liberation. In addition to providing her the freedom to physically go where she pleases, it also makes it possible for Wadjda to psychologically go where she pleases. This reinforces her belief that she’s the master of her destiny, that she’s in charge of creating her chosen reality, not those who would attempt to hold her back and keep her in place.

Support for goals like Wadjda’s may be more forthcoming than expected, too, even from unexpected sources. Surprisingly, the alleged oppressors who Saudi women are so routinely taught to cower before (i.e., men) may at times offer them more encouragement than they believe they’re entitled to. In their own way, Abdullah, Wadjda’s father (Sultan Al Assaf) and a neighborhood toy store owner (Mohammed Alkhozain) all quietly and playfully provide a measure of support. While their level of encouragement may not amount to a blanket endorsement, it’s nevertheless far from the opposing attitudes or outright threats that Wadjda and her female peers are repeatedly conditioned to expect. Fortunately, Wadjda is astute enough to pick up on this, a realization that emboldens her in her quest even more.

Enterprising Saudi schoolgirl Wadjda (Waad Mohammed, right) frequently faces opposition to her plans from her conservative mother (Reem Abdullah, left) and surprising support from her less traditional father (Sultan Al Assaf, center) in director Haifaa Al Mansour’s “Wadjda.” Photo by Tobias Kownatzki © Razor Film, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Those who feel oppressed and aspire to more than the seriously constricted roles and rights to which they’ve been relegated (like many Saudi women) can take heart from Wadjda’s example. While it certainly would be overstating things to call her story a feminist manifesto, it nevertheless makes apparent possibilities that the repressed may have never considered. They can draw from the courage and conviction on display here to rewrite their own destinies as fully engaged conscious creators.

“Wadjda” is a simple but powerful story, well told and emotionally effective, without ever becoming cutesy or overly sentimental. The writing and performances are solid across the board, especially those of Mohammed and Abdullah (both of whom are making their feature film debuts) and Ahd. This combination of elements makes for an enjoyable time at the movies, one suitable for viewers of all ages and backgrounds. The film is currently playing in limited distribution, primarily in theaters that specialize in independent and foreign cinema, but it’s worth searching for, especially for those seeking inspirational tales for impressionable viewers.

The back story behind this production is as almost interesting as the film itself. It’s the first feature-length movie ever filmed entirely within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (mostly in the suburbs of the capital city of Riyadh). It’s also the first fictional feature from director Haifaa Al Mansour, the nation’s preeminent female filmmaker and one of the country’s leading cinematic visionaries. That’s quite an accomplishment for a land without movie theaters.

No matter how overwhelming our circumstances may appear, it’s possible to rise above them as long as we hold fast to our belief in our personal power. As long as we maintain sight of the fact that we can dissolve disempowering circumstances just as easily as we create them, we can move forward confidently to manifest new conditions that better suit us. That’s something “Wadjda” teaches us, and we’d be wise to abide by its message, especially at times when it feels like we’re about to be buried by what’s around us. And, if we do so, we just might get our own bikes after all.

Copyright © 2013, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Discernment championed in ‘Austenland’

“Austenland” (2013). Cast: Keri Russell, JJ Feild, Jennifer Coolidge, Bret McKenzie, Georgia King, James Callis, Jane Seymour, Ricky Whittle, Rupert Vansittart. Director: Jerusha Hess. Screenplay: Jerusha Hess and Shannon Hale. Book: Shannon Hale, Austenland. Web site. Trailer.

What’s real and what isn’t? From a conscious creation perspective, anything we perceive is technically “real,” so a better question would probably be, what’s genuine and what isn’t? Making that distinction is where the power of discernment comes into play, a theme that permeates the story line of the charming new romantic comedy, “Austenland.”

No matter what she does, Jane Hayes (Keri Russell) just can’t seem to find love. It’s not for a lack of trying, but nothing ever seems to work out. Some would say – including some potential suitors – that it’s because she has unrealistic expectations about relationships, thanks to her consuming preoccupation with the classic romances of English novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817). Like a prototypical Austen-esque heroine, Jane is looking to be swept her off her feet by an amorous aristocratic hero a la Mr. Darcy from the author’s classic opus, Pride and Prejudice. But, in this day and age, what man realistically can live up to such a storybook image?

With nothing to lose, Jane decides to pay a visit to Austenland, a sort of Jane Austen role playing theme park located on an English country estate, where guests live out romantic adventures portraying characters inspired by the facility’s namesake. They interact with actors (to use the term loosely) who play characters in customized scenarios created for each of the guests. Jane’s visit costs her nearly all of her life savings, but, believing that she has nothing to lose, she takes a chance that, just like Austenland’s promotional brochure promises, she’ll come to know love by the end of her stay.

Jane Hayes, a.k.a. Miss Jane Erstwhile (Keri Russell), lives out a Regency Era romantic fantasy in the delightful new comedy, “Austenland.” Photo by Giles Keyte, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Upon arrival, Jane is greeted by the hostess for her visit, Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour), and is assigned her fictitious identity, Miss Jane Erstwhile, a woman of limited standing whom the estate takes pity on. She then meets two companions who’ll accompany her on her adventure, a sweet but dimwitted fellow American who goes by the character name Miss Elizabeth Charming (Jennifer Coolidge) and an emotionally overwrought, self-serving aristocrat dubbed Lady Amelia Heartwright (Georgia King). Next, she’s introduced to the facilitators of her little drama, the standoffish Mr. Henry Nobly (JJ Feild), the eccentric, adventurous Colonel Andrews (James Callis), and the dapper, swashbuckling Captain East (Ricky Whittle). And, to help Jane maneuver her way through the maze that is this protocol-driven world, there’s Martin (Bret McKenzie), a kindly stable hand.

During her stay, Jane lives out an array of Regency Era escapades (and experiences a rollercoaster of emotions in doing so). This is primarily due to the simultaneous pursuit of our heroine by two would-be lovers, Martin and Mr. Nobly. Martin doesn’t hesitate to make his feelings known, and Jane feels drawn to him, but, as a mere employee and not one of the characters in the role playing fantasy, he’s expected to keep his place. Meanwhile, the once-reticent Mr. Nobly gradually warms up to the fair Miss Erstwhile the more he gets to know her, but, despite a mutual simmering attraction, Jane remains cautiously reserved to his advances, unsure of the reasons behind his seemingly inexplicable change of heart. And, over time and in true Austen fashion, all of these little dramas build to a climax worthy of the author herself, one that will keep those on- and off-screen guessing right up until the very end. Jane will have to decide for herself what’s genuine and what isn’t, a challenge that will test her powers of intuition and her ability to discern what exactly constitutes true love.

Pursued by two would-be suitors, Jane Hayes, a.k.a. Miss Jane Erstwhile (Keri Russell, right), must decide whether she desires the affections of a kindly stable hand, Martin (Bret McKenzie, center), or the standoffish, erudite Mr. Henry Nobly (JJ Feild, left) in director Jerusha Hess’s hilarious romantic comedy, “Austenland.” Photo by Giles Keyte, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

The complex, often-muddled circumstances with which Jane is presented provide the focus for the film’s central theme, that of learning one’s power of discernment. This skill is crucial for honing one’s conscious creation abilities, for it helps us to sharpen our capacity for making effective use of our intuition, one of the key components we rely upon in developing the beliefs that we use in manifesting our surrounding reality. Discernment helps to show us the way in determining what’s valid and viable as opposed to what’s illusory wishful thinking.

And what better environment to sharpen this skill than in the fantasyland that is a role playing theme park! Austenland provides Jane with a metaphysical test kitchen to try out her beliefs and to help her determine which of them align with her true self. Is she being unrealistic in believing that a real-life Mr. Darcy can come along and sweep her off her feet? Or is it truly possible that this dream can be made manifest as long as she employs beliefs that are suitable for making it happen? Or should she take a more grounded approach, looking for something more “realistically” attainable, even if it doesn’t live up to all of her desires and expectations? She’ll get an opportunity to address each of these questions through her Austenland experience. The biggest question, of course, is, which one will she choose?

Joining Jane Hayes, a.k.a. Miss Jane Erstwhile (Keri Russell, center), for a romantic Regency Era adventure are Miss Elizabeth Charming (Jennifer Coolidge, left) and Lady Amelia Heartwright (Georgia King, right) in the delightful new romantic comedy, “Austenland.” Photo by Giles Keyte, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Jane’s experience offers us an excellent example that we can each draw upon in our own lives, especially when we’re faced with circumstances that force us to ask, are we truly being honest with ourselves? It’s fortuitous that this exercise is being played out in a theme park like this, too, because it shows us that the process should be fun and playful, not dour and burdensome, as many of us probably feel when addressing such questions. Indeed, Jane reveals to us that the process of self-discovery should be something to be enjoyed, not endured, and we’d all be wise to follow her lead.

“Austenland” is a hilarious cinematic romp, if a bit episodic and unevenly paced at times. But those shortcomings are more than compensated for by its ample laughs, drawn from the picture’s clever writing (as seen in such aspects as Miss Charming’s repeated failures at properly using Briticisms) and its intentional over-the-top overacting (best exemplified by the amateurish delivery of the actor, and part-time porn star, who portrays Captain East). It’s a terrific spoof of the Austen material, one that even those unfamiliar with the author’s books will no doubt find amusing (and that her fans are sure to find positively uproarious). The film also features excellent costume design and wonderfully whimsical art direction as seen in its many deliberately cheesy elements (such as its ubiquitous menagerie of bad taxidermy specimens) and anachronistic touches (like its placement of a bowl of bagels on a Regency Era breakfast table).

While living out a Regency Era romantic fantasy, Jane Hayes, a.k.a. Miss Jane Erstwhile (Keri Russell, third from left), meets the adventurous, eccentric Colonel Andrews (James Callis, left), the dapper, swashbuckling Captain East (Ricky Whittle, second from left), the brooding Mr. Henry Nobly (JJ Feild, right) and estate hostess Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour, second from right) in the charming new comedy, “Austenland.” Photo by Giles Keyte, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

I’m truly baffled why critics have been so unduly harsh on this release. Many have criticized its exaggerated acting and technical elements as being too overblown to be credible, but then consider the source material involved here. When viewed in that light, these attributes seem perfectly in context, especially when considered from a satirical standpoint. This movie is great fun throughout, and I believe that those who don’t see it that way, unfortunately, are truly missing the point. Don’t take it so seriously, and you’ll have a great time.

“Austenland” is playing in limited release, primarily at theaters that specialize in independent cinema. But, like so many of the other wonderful indie flicks that have been released this summer, it’s well worth the effort to search it out, be it in the theater or in eventual release on disk.

When faced with trying to decide what’s genuine and what isn’t, we should all follow the example set in this film. Employing the process of discernment may be tricky at times, but it can be a fulfilling and fun-filled exercise as well, one that helps us discover what we truly want and don’t want in our lives. And, above all, it has the potential to produce the kind of happy ending that I’m sure even Miss Austen would approve of.

Copyright © 2013, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.