‘A Hologram for the King’ and ‘Wadjda’: Two glimpses into Saudi life

Tom Hanks plays a washed-up, divorcing, depressed salesman in Saudi Arabia in a film filled with romance, comedy, foreign intrigue and a refreshing innocence. How unexpected is that?

Waad Mohammed as Wadjda / Razor Film Produktion GmbH, distributed by Koch Media
Waad Mohammed as Wadjda / Razor Film Produktion GmbH, distributed by Koch Media

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo., April 24, 2016 — Run, don’t walk to your nearest movie theater to catch Tom Hanks’ newest film, “A Hologram for the King.” After seeing that film, hurry up and order a copy of another entertaining Saudi-oriented film, “Wadjda” (released in 2012).

“A Hologram for the King” is an oddly universal story that takes place in the ancient desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Starring Tom Hanks, the film deals with the disappointments that attend middle age no matter where one lives. Yet it’s still unusual to watch one man’s familiar struggles with life played out against such an background.

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In “A Hologram for the King” – set in 2010 prior to the Arab Spring uprisings – Tom Hanks plays Alan Clay, a washed-up, desperate American salesman who travels to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to sell a holographic teleconferencing system to the Saudi king’s new development, the “King’s Metropolis of Economy and Trade.” The film’s supporting cast features actors Tom Skerritt and Sarita Choudhury.

“Hologram” was beautifully filmed in the desert kingdom, and, as far as movies are concerned, has it all: romance, comedy, foreign intrigue and a refreshingly innocent view of a much-maligned country that’s generally seen as being embroiled in the confusing mess of international politics and Islamic jihadism. In addition to Jeddah, Mecca — the forbidden Islamic center not usually photographed or viewed by non-Moslems — is briefly shown in the film.

Audiences for this film will find it useful to put aside their entrenched views about the Saudi government’s possible involvement in Middle East’s multi-pronged war against the West. Viewers can relax, sit back and enjoy the interactions of real people, Americans and Saudi, who are trying to live their lives as best they can in an often chaotic environment.

“A Hologram for the King” is a rarity in today’s film releases. It’s a wholesome, enjoyable experience, one that many, upon leaving the theater, remember as “sweet.”

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Offering a similarly “sweet” experience is “Wadjda,” a 2012 Saudi-German film. It has the distinction of being the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and the first feature-length film made by a female Saudi director. The film charmingly but realistically follows the travails of a typical 11-year-old Saudi girl growing up in the Saudi capital of Riyadh.

Wadjda is a precocious little conniver, testing her pre-adolescent boundaries no less than any American girl might do. She dreams of owning a green bicycle that she passes in a store every day on her way to school. She wants to be able to race against her friend, Abdullah, a neighborhood boy, because she’s convinced she can beat him.

Every night, Wadjda counts the profits she’s made from selling hand-made string bracelets to her classmates as well as from pay-offs she gets for passing illicit love notes — risky business in this severely prudish country, where such infractions, if discovered, are severely punished. Finally, she enters a Quran recital competition at her school, hoping to win the large cash prize that will be awarded to the top student.

In the course of this lovely and innocent film, we fleetingly are dropped into daily life in Riyadh. We view a family from the inside, visit a lower school and are allowed to listen in on a culture that’s foreign yet

Just as in America, love, marriage, relationships, the trials attendant on growing up and family squabbles engage the Saudis. “Wadjda,” with its desert setting in this closed and curious faraway country, reminds us of our own humanity and allows us to shed our Western view of traditional Islamic life, at least for the duration of the film.

At the same time, we find ourselves falling in love with the irrepressible Wadjda as she schemes her way through life. The clever girl will remind many of the preciousness of youthful exuberance no matter where it’s found.

“Wadjda” has won numerous awards at film festivals around the world since its 2012 release. The film was selected as the Saudi Arabian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 86th Academy Awards—the first time the country made a submission for the Oscars, though it was not nominated. It earned a nomination for Best Foreign Film at the 2014 BAFTA Awards.

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