Wadjda (Cert PG)
1 Disc (Distributor: Soda Pictures) Running time: 97 minutes approx.
In Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, 10 year-old Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) revels in challenging the constraints her conservative society puts on women. After a falling out with a local boy Abdullah (Abdullrahman Algohani) Wadjda challenges him to a bike race although women riding bikes is frowned upon. A store Wadjda passes every day has a green bike which she has her eyes on but her mother (Reem Abdullah) refuses to buy it since she is preoccupied with convincing her husband (Sultan Al Assaf) not to take a second wife. Wadjda manages to raise some money through her entrepreneurial savvy but her schemes are thwarted by her strict headmistress Ms. Hussa (Ahd). A second chance at earning the money comes when a Quran recital competition is open to Wadjda’s school with a hefty cash prize at stake for the winner.
Saudi Arabia doesn’t have much of a film industry which is why this feature film debut from documentary maker Haifaa Al-Mansour is quite the groundbreaker as it was not only the first film shot on home turf but also the first by a female director. In case you are thinking “big deal” just watch the film (or others from the Middle East) and how women are treated in a Muslim society and you’ll understand why this is a big deal. While Al-Mansour had the backing of Rotana, the largest entertainment group in Arabia, she had to look to Europe for funding. She was also forced to direct many outdoor scenes from the back of a van via walkie talkies due to the strict laws against women interacting with her male crew in public.
Therefore it is of little surprise that that this and other aspects of female oppression in a male dominated theocratic society make up many of the themes for this spiritual successor to 2008’s animated hit Persepolis, although Al-Mansour is careful not to appear judgemental, simply allowing the scenes to play out for us to observe and make our own minds up. Naturally, since western attitudes are vastly different, our responses will be one of shock and appal. That said, the film is rather light in tone and having a 10 year-old protagonist softens the blow a little.
The eponymous heroine is a plucky, resourceful child who adores her parents but is unhappy at the prospect of them splitting up, for her father wanted a male heir, hence his “need” for a second wife. The bike she eyes up at the local toy store represents a freedom for Wadjda, a means to escape – even if it is to the end of the street! However she is constantly being told that girls shouldn’t ride bikes because it will harm their chances of having babies – but this goes in one ear and out the other.
To raise the funds for the bike Wadjda makes mix tapes of love songs for her fellow pupils (schools are segregated for boys and girls), makes bracelets of football teams and even runs errands for lovelorn couples. Headmistress Ms. Hussa finds out about this and ends it forcing Wadjda to seek her finances from another source, this time studying for the Quran recital competition, for which she uses a computer game for help. While the struggle for Wadjda is the strict regime of the school, she also has to contend with her mother who she sees as a strong role model yet is the ultimate conformist to her religion and the social rules.
For us in the west as much as these issues will vex us, this film offers a look behind the closed doors of a country hitherto alien to us, providing an insightful if slightly distressing education on another culture. For instance, young girls are not allowed to read the Quran when menstrual (in case they bleed on the book); being seen by a group of men in public – covered or otherwise – is a huge no-no, even the young girls are forced to go indoors if more than one man is around; women are not allowed to drive and have to pay a male driver to chaperone them; young girls are forced to marry for the sake of the family honour; holding hands with other girls is a sin and so on. One scene sees a classmate of Wadjda’s, possibly the same age, shares photos of her arranged wedding to a 20 year-old (although photos are forbidden in school!).
It is baffling to us that a country which has the same mod cons and luxuries as computer game systems, mobile phones and the like have values and cultural attitudes that belong to the stone age but Al-Mansour isn’t looking for sympathy for the women and certainly not for Wadjda herself. If anything she is seen as a beacon for the freedoms Saudi women must privately strive for and engenders encouragement and support in her plight as she successfully navigates the various obstacles through hard work and intelligence.
Waad Mohammed in her first role makes for an engaging protagonist, her natural wide eyed innocence with a cheeky rebellious glint makes up for her inexperience, a similar trait found in her young co-stars who bring an equal virtuous charm to the film. The adults are able to bring a much needed depth with Ahd as Ms. Hussa acting as the nominal villain in lieu of not impugning the teachings of Islam.
Without a cinema culture in Saudi Arabia any reaction to this film from its citizens will have to come from outside its borders, which I am sure will be mixed at the very least. Hopefully the success of this film, the fact it was entered for the Foreign language Oscars and the numerous awards it has will encourage a rethink for their film industry. Al-Mansour should be proud and rightfully applauded for creating Wadjda not just for breaking down barriers but also for delivering an utterly delightful, heart warming and above all hopeful film.
Arabic 5.1 DTS / 2.0
Making Of Wadjda
Women Without Shadows
Rating – ****
Man In Black