Film review: Wadjda

Dear Dad

A rare insight into lives squeezed between a slit of the Niqāb (face-veil), Wadjda brilliantly evokes the Islamic society in Saudi Arabia where women eat food left over by men, where pre-teen girls are married to males twice, or more, their age, and ‘proper’ girls are neither seen nor heard, for a woman’s voice reveals her “nakedness”.

Taking us there is feisty and rebellious Wadjda (extraordinary Waad Mohammed), a 10-year-old girl who has chosen Converse high-tops over girly Mary-Jane shoes to walk to and from her middle-class Riyadh home and the madrassa.

She has loving parents although her mother is heavy with anxiety that Wadjda’s father is seeking out a second wife to bear him a son. Meanwhile, the highly-spirited only child has resolved to own a bicycle so that she could race with Abdullah, the boy she hangs out with in the neighbourhood.

Unable to persuade her mother, influenced by the belief that girls could lose their virginity riding a bike, to give her the money, the determined young lady signs up for a Quran recital competition in which the cash prize in riyal would allow her to make the purchase.

Held together with sharply-drawn vignettes that cohere, this feature — the first to be filmed entirely in Saudi Arabia by her first female director, Haifaa al-Mansour — could well prove to be a seminal work in a country where cinemas themselves have been banned for three decades.

Using white light that jumps off the dust in the dry and sun-swept capital, Lutz Reitemeier captures the bleak subjugation women in the kingdom endure — a fact the Saudi King’s daughters have only recently attested to.

Collaborating seamlessly, the filmmakers juxtapose the behaviour of Saudi women today with incipient attitudes of the next generation.

When the headmistress of the madrassa expels a student over a romantic tryst, while rumoured to be similarly indulgent herself, Wadjda is unafraid to tell the entire school of her plans to buy the frowned-upon bicycle with her winning prize. When her mother goes to unfathomable lengths not to be compromised in the eyes of Islam to preserve her husband’s honour, only to be betrayed, Wadjda is using her feminine charm on Abdullah to learn how to ride without training wheels.

With the wind in her hair, and miles ahead of Abdullah on the new bike — a metaphor (within metaphors) emphasised by the little boy’s labouring look — Wadjda is pushing boundaries past disapproving looks breaking through seeming grimness into the freedom and independence that all women are entitled to.

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I choose solitude
to be with you

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Satin Kisses

i remember when i stood
between your legs
you braided my hair
weaving ribbons of satin kisses

when little kneads rolled off
my fingers onto your shoulders
you sighed and said
angels were dancing

beneath today’s changing tree
and different backyard
will you let me lie on your lap
again and fall asleep

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In the book of my existence
my mother is the laconic Foreword
few would have read
Yet it is the most precious part in the telling

of that modest tale

like the ink in the author’s pen

flowing with love

the way her mind flows with thought

giving my heart hands

to hold the ribbons of life

my soul pearls of teaching

to wear as a necklace in the ethereal light
Only —

I don’t tell her this

often enough
not anywhere near often enough

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Put your stethoscope away; mine’s not a heart you can press your ear against for secret murmurings. There is a leaky valve in my chest. But it’ll never be seen from colours sucking and sliding in your sonogram. Read the circumspection between my lips, hear for answers in the absence of the postman’s bell, see how shadows of my silhouette are diminishing. Because, only then will you have mastered the cardiology beating in my quiet breasts.

We lay on the windswept grass
in the same drought
of a different geography

A bit of longing
mixed with some apathy
It’s been five long years

Thought I’d wiped you forever
from memory but here you are
inside me, making waves

Dear Dad

In my dream last night, Friedrich Wieck was my teacher. And he forced me to practise with my eyes clamped shut. As he rapped my knuckles each time I tripped and I floundered, music sang from my fingers to fill the air in every night corner. When I was finally allowed to blink into the light, dim from the lamp, I had become Clara Schumann, as slight as she was determined, playing Johann Bach’s Air on the G String. Because.

I miss you.

i am sitting silent at the desk
unfolding my heart like a letter
to read for him her contents — sadder now
in places, remembering still in others

autumn is red and gold
and green in leaves
clouds and skies of pain
always coming then passing

it is a day filled with
magic and love and poetry
how would he like to lie beside me
on the grass in the sun again

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Theatre review: The Judas Kiss

Dear Dad

The Judas Kiss

Towards the end of the play, Oscar Wilde says John, not Judas, should’ve been the one to betray Jesus since John was the apostle Jesus most loved while he hardly knew Judas. And watching how Oscar has been forsaken by the love of his life, we understand why.

Jason Cavanagh’s elegant revival of David Hare’s 1998 play is a rich portrait of unequal love, and a moving portrayal of what it means to live under the conviction that “Only when we love do we see the true person. Love is not the illusion. Life is.”

It is 1895. Oscar has lost a libel suit against the Marquess of Queensberry who has accused him of sodomy. The Marquess is the father of his paramour, Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie), and the writer himself now faces arrest.

Meanwhile, Robert Ross, his former flame who still harbours a passion for Oscar has organised for the embattled prosecutor-turned-defendent to leave whilst at the same time nursing the heartache of having the man he loves loving somebody else.

Under Chris Baldock’s thespian brilliance, Oscar who died more than 100 years ago wits his way back to life before our eyes. But rather than the flamboyant spirit with a piercing intellect you’d imagine, Baldock presents a more sombre figure that the Irish poet became.

Allowing himself to see only the best in his object of desire, Baldock’s Oscar is vehement in his delusion, in denial of being used by Bosie as a tool to rebel against his father.

Refusing to give in to the oppression of aristocracy, blindly believing that Bosie will work on acquiring his bail, that flight would represent a betrayal of their love, Oscar rebuffs Robert’s well-meaning gestures, and stays to be apprehended.

Hare’s exquisite writing finds character distinctions between Oscar and Bosie; it contrasts the devotion Robert has for Oscar with the selfish callousness of Oscar’s new beau, and compares Oscar’s unreturned love for Bosie with Robert’s for Oscar.

After the interval, in Naples, following two years of hard-labour incarceration, a perceptibly-diminished Oscar is reunited with Bosie who carries on with his promiscuous ways despite their destitution.

But Oscar, even when facing demands to leave Bosie or have the allowance from his wife cut off, will not abandon his lover — only to find himself soon enough dumped.

Through Baldock, we see the despair of a fervent romantic who, wrapped up in extravagant quixotism, had clung on to the hope that the world (including his wife and children) would understand if Bosie and he could prove their inextinguishable love.

“The governing principle of my life has been love,” Oscar says to the departing Bosie. “But of yours, it has been power.”

And the script is woven with a language that is as lush as it is lustrous.

Other performances, too, have been tremendous. Nigel Langley’s Bosie is positively unlikable (as he should be), callow and curiously self-righteous; hotel servants by Soren Jensen and Lauren Murtagh and Zak Zavod are appropriately human beneath uniforms of subservience. Oliver Coleman, though, is worthy of special mention: remarkably poised, he combines in Robert a quiet dignity and an emotional anguish when told that what he had with Oscar is “not the same” as what Oscar now has with Bosie.

Besides drawing out the psychological truths of the drama, Cavanagh also gives the simulated-sex and nude scenes an artful quality. And the lighting design by Rob Sowinski is excellent as well in conveying the dusk of a dying love, and the darkest moments of the final goodbye before dawn.

Having everything taken from him, not least his ability to write, Oscar would have seen why it was Judas who gave Jesus away — he hardly knew Bosie afterall — if he had realised that perhaps life is not the illusion; but love is.

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through dawn’s gentle breathing
she walks the path of quiet
finds a moment of rest
in her heart’s garden

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