Liberating Bicycles in Niki Caro’s Whale Rider and in Haifaa Al Mansour’s Wadjda
Liberating Bicycles in Niki Caro’s Whale Rider and in Haifaa Al Mansour’s Wadjda
Abstract: Susan B. Anthony declared in 1896 that the bicycle “has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.” The comparative study of Whale Rider (2002) and Wadjda (2012) demonstrates that this liberating effect of the basic tool of transportation is being reinforced in the new millennium. The analysis further situates two contemporary women filmmakers, Niki Caro from New Zealand and Haifaa Al Mansour from Saudi Arabia, within the growing global network Patricia White identifies, in Women’s Cinema, World Cinema (2015), as crucial for the improvement of female directors’ conditions in a global film industry.
Résumé: Susan B. Anthony a déclaré en 1896 que la bicyclette « a fait plus pour émanciper les femmes que toute autre chose dans le monde ». L’étude comparative de Whale Rider (2002) and Wadjda (2012) démontre que cet effet libérateur de l’outil de base des transports se renforce au cours du nouveau millénaire. De plus, l’analyse situe deux cinéastes contemporaines, Niki Caro de Nouvelle-Zélande et Haifaa Al Mansour d’Arabie Saoudite, au sein du réseau mondial en croissance que Patricia White identifie, dans Women’s Cinema, World Cinema (2015), comme crucial pour l’amélioration des conditions des réalisatrices dans une industrie cinématographique mondiale.
Susan B. Anthony declared in 1896 that the bicycle “has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world” (Raab 24). The present comparative study argues that Niki Caro and Haifaa Al Mansour pay tribute to Anthony’s feminist spirit when they create girl protagonists whose bicycles play crucial roles in their debut features, Whale Rider (2002) and Wadjda (2012) respectively. Patricia White states, in Women’s Cinema, World Cinema: Projecting Contemporary Feminisms (2015), that even though “still drastically underrepresented, women directors are increasingly coming into view within the current circulation of world cinema” (White 4). White establishes the “history of ‘cinefeminism’” (6) as point of departure for her critical framework “where women’s works are encountered in relation to each other […] and to their various, expansive constituencies” (19). The current analysis of a film from New Zealand alongside one from Saudi Arabia situates their directors within such a history of cinefeminism. Indeed, both Caro and Al Mansour progressed to very diverse projects outside their respective national contexts after the international success with stories that were close to home. This article argues that the liberating rides they grant their protagonists therefore compare to the subsequent mobility of the directors themselves.
Inaugurating a cinematic focus on the muscle-powered transportation device, Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) enforced the symbolic significance of bicycles in global cinema. Ecologically friendly and not requiring a special license, this basic tool of transportation has featured as prominent prop in movies such as Breaking Away (1979), The Flying Scotsman (2006), or The Kid with a Bike (2011). It has further served as a metaphor for filmmakers to describe their own creative process (White, 2013). Both Whale Rider and Wadjda present the bicycle as an effective symbol of a girl’s growing assertiveness in conservative, tribal communities. Attributing the respective heroines to the industrial contexts of the two directors further claims the liberating effect of bicycles on a meta-level. Godard’s comparison of his work to a bicycle ride may apply to both Caro and Al Mansour as well. To acknowledge the centrality of bicycles in Whale Rider and Wadjda allows for a feminist angle on the neorealist legacy, and it reveals this angle’s relevance for the work of the women who directed the respective films.1
The bicycle’s cultural representations go beyond the purely cinematic. A considerable amount of research has dealt with the universal significance of bicycles in fiction. Culture on Two Wheels: The Bicycle in Literature and Film (2016), edited by Jeremy Withers and Daniel P. Shea, is a comprehensive source that covers literature and film across the world and through the ages, since the invention of the bicycle, allegedly in the early 19th century (Raab 23). Alon Raab lists a great number of writers who reveal themselves as passionate riders in “Wheels of Fire: Writers on Bicycles.” Withers and Shea open their introduction with the claim that “we are living during a bicycle revolution” (Withers/Shea 2) and go on to point out that cycling commonly associates with liberation. Their collection includes a chapter that discusses Al Mansour’s Wadjda as influenced by Italian neorealism and Iranian cinema. Anne Ciecko’s “Bicycle Borrowers after Neorealism: Global Nou-velo Cinema,” however, also establishes a context of national cinema in which to situate the neorealist legacy. In the absence of a national Saudi cinema, I argue that a comparative study of Wadjda and Whale Rider serves better to highlight the bicycle’s “extraordinary utility for critiques of social inequality” (Ciecko 242) in a feminist context. While Wadjda, as Ciecko points out, transforms De Sica’s father-son focus into a mother-daughter story, Whale Rider adds one more generation in its focus on a grandfather-granddaughter conflict. In both films, bicycle rides serve to reinforce a girl’s potential, against severe resistance. In film industries, in particular the well-established ones, women frequently face severe resistance as well when they attempt to work behind cameras. Such resistance mainly rests within the production and distribution apparatus, but it may also hail from film critics.
Both Al Mansour and Caro have been accused of cultural commodification in their attempts to reach larger audiences. It may not be accidental that in both cases the harshest, and also most polemical, critiques come from male critics. As women filmmakers, Caro and Al Mansour thus share a similar kind of oppression that their heroines battle in their respective films. One attempt to create more transparency and achieve gender parity in film industries is the so-called 50:50-by-2020 festival pledge. Unfortunately, not all powers that be agree with this measure’s necessity (Erbland).2 Providing a comparative analysis of Whale Rider by Caro and Wadjda by Al Mansour as part of De Sica’s legacy encourages critics to grant these directors the kind of liberating rides that they created for their respective heroines. The following analysis begins with a discussion of the older film, Whale Rider, which is based on a novel without bicycles. The second section sheds light on a bicycle as central prop in Wadjda, whose success led to a children’s book called The Green Bicycle (2015). “The Liberating Effect of Bicycles,” finally, compares the symbolic significance of bicycles in the stories as well as for the work of their directors.
Whale Rider’s Shared Bicycle
The story we liked best was the one telling how Mihi had stood on a sacred ground at Rotorua. “Sit down,” a chief had yelled, enraged. “Sit down,” because women weren’t supposed to stand up and speak on sacred ground.” (Ihimaera 81)
Whale Rider premiered at the 2002 Toronto International Film Festival, where it received the AGF Peoples Choice Award. The release of a revised international edition of Witi Ihimaera’s novel (1987; 2003), on which the film is based, accompanied the latter’s worldwide success. Among the following numerous recognitions are nine New Zealand Film Awards, including Best Film, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. Melissa Kennedy points out that Caro’s screenplay resulted in “little change to the principal story-line,” but shifted the narrative voice mainly due to the difference in media (Kennedy 116). Māori scholars, in contrast, disapprove of Caro’s adaptation, and Alistair Fox, in Coming-of-Age Cinema in New Zealand: Genre, Gender, and Adaptation (2017), argues that the film imposes a Western feminist perspective. He further accuses it of “transubstantiating [the original story]’s meaning in the course of converting the source into a conventional coming-of-age genre film” (Fox 149).
Although Fox, in reference to studies by Brendan Hokowhitu (Fox 148) and Tania Kai’ai (Fox 149), is right to point to specific distortions of Māori culture, he exaggerates when describing the contrast between Ihimaera’s and Caro’s work on the story. Book and film use poetic devices, such as symbolism, intertextual references, and rhythm to interweave the tribal myth of the whale rider (Figure 3) with the story of this ancient hero’s real-life female descendent. Once Paikea, the film’s narrator, realizes her specific purpose within her post-colonial Indigenous community, she realizes she must oppose her stubborn grandfather Koro, the community’s current leader. Lars Eckstein, in his thoughtful placement of the tale on a continuum between magical and marvellous realism, provides important insight on the Māori writer’s own variations of the material rooted in his tribal mythology. Ihimaera’s rendering of The Whale Rider starts with the 1987 edition published in New Zealand, mainly in English, but includes Māori terminology and entire passages that indicate an untranslatable “alternative cosmology” (Eckstein 101). Eckstein is keen to emphasize that the date of this original publication, “about belief as much as about fantasy,” coincides with the introduction of Māori as second official language in New Zealand (105). Ihimaera supports this development and pays tribute to the recognition of his tribal language with Te Kaieke Tohara, a 1995 Māori version of The Whale Rider (101).
Ihimaera’s subsequent work on an international edition of the novel coincides with his participation in the film as associate producer (Kennedy 116). Both activities are concessions to a broader audience and thus mediations between cultures. Chris Prentice is right to remind readers, in “Riding the Whale? Postcolonialism and Globalization in Whale Rider,” that the twenty-first century renderings of the story are also mediations between generations (Prentice 256). Māori terminology in the international edition appears only with translations, sometimes even accompanied by a glossary. In the film, the tribal language occurs only when the meaning is evident from the scene, or with subtitles. Eckstein situates these newer versions further away from the marvellous on his spectrum, due to a loss of the untranslatable alternative cosmology. They do not, however, replace Ihimaera’s earlier text. Ideally, as in Eckstein’s classroom, they may invite comparative studies that are bound to acknowledge Indigenous criticism. As with the edited version of the novel, the international reception of the film testifies to the success of the tale’s twenty-first century receptions. These newer versions have met a global audience, for better or worse. They have introduced a tale from a specific community in New Zealand to viewers worldwide who may not have been familiar with Māori culture at all. Some of these viewers may have misinterpreted elements of the setting, or perceived of it as an exotic other.
Sarah Projansky discusses American reactions to Caro’s film in “Gender, Race, Feminism, and the International Hero: The Unremarkable U. S. Popular Press Reception of Bend It Like Beckham and Whale Rider.” Projansky traces the film’s transition from art house to multiplex cinemas across the United States (Projansky 190), and provides a thorough discussion of numerous reviewer reports. Her use of the word “unremarkable” in the title of her essay signals “predictable,” and refers to a certain complacency encouraged by stories from distant locations. At the same time, Projansky identifies important discrepancies between individual reviews, in particular regarding the relevance of feminist content (Projansky 199). The diverse reactions Projansky identifies in this context illustrate that feminism, even in the so-called “West,” is not the monolithic sort of movement Fox makes it seem in his assessment of Caro’s adaptation. The following analysis of specific scenes identifies further flaws in Fox’s argument.
Ihimaera’s book includes no bicycles at all. Instead, his narrator Rawiri, the heroine’s uncle, uses a motorcycle. In Caro’s film, Paikea herself provides the narrative perspective, and during the first half, she shares her grandfather Koro’s bike when he picks her up from school (Figure 1). The bicycle, in this case, serves to highlight the reciprocal affinity of the two family members, and it also draws attention to the wealth of the community’s natural environment. The first cycling scene occurs immediately after the opening hospital sequence that summarizes the tragic circumstances of Paikea’s birth. A jump cut transitions to the narrative present about seven years later. Following this cut, close-up shots of pedalling feet, the faces of the cycling pair, and the grandfather’s whale tooth necklace (Figure 2) alternate with long shots of the impressive landscape. These scenes mark a certain ambiguity in Koro’s character regarding his relationship with Paikea. When her mother and twin brother die during Paikea’s birth, Koro rejects his first grandchild forcefully. He is in need of a male descendent to take on his leadership role. As Paikea grows up in his house, in the absence of her father, their affinity becomes mutual, as long as she is unaware of her fate as the next leader. This fate becomes obvious for the first time when Paikea asks Koro about the community’s creation myth while he is repairing his boat’s outboard motor.
Neither the motor nor the boat, as Fox suggests (Fox 155), symbolizes the tribe in this scene. Rather, it is the broken rope, as Koro makes clear when answering Pai’s questions about the ancient whale rider’s significance for Whangara (Figure 3). When the individual strings of the rope are tight together, the grandfather explains, the community is strong. While Koro disappears to find a new rope—a potential statement on modernization’s battle against tradition—Paikea fixes the old, broken rope, which allows her to start the motor. Koro’s angry reaction expresses his hostility towards his granddaughter’s trespassing into his own field of responsibility. This hostility has its origin in the old leader’s rejection of change, a rejection that ironically contrasts with his search for a new rope when Paikea proves that the old one is mendable. Koro does not overcome his aversion to impending change until his granddaughter’s life is at stake, after she rides a whale and succeeds in rescuing a beached pod that way. When Koro finally admits to being a “fledgling new to flight,” this metaphor relates to said change, rather than to a disrespect of hierarchy, as Fox would have it (158). When Koro speaks thus in the hospital room, Paikea is still in a coma, and nobody can hear him. In a way, he comforts himself, showing that he can accept the unavoidable transition and welcome his successor even if she happens to be female.