In a way it is unfortunate that Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Wadjda is freighted with historical importance as the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia by a female director, for the circumstances of its production serve to obscure its genuine virtues. It is a small and charming movie that, while not without a political brief, works as the simple story of a 10-year-old girl who wants a bicycle.
While that bicycle is no less a symbol here than it is in Vittoriode Sica’s 1948 neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves, Al-Mansour respects the nuances and eccentricities of individual human experience too much to force the issue. Her film contains no lectures about the sometimes odd and arbitrary ways that a patriarchal society oppresses its female population; we need only observe. Saudi culture frowns on women driving cars or riding bikes; when they venture out in public they must cover themselves from head to toe or risk censure by the religious police. In public, they cannot be seen in the company of any male who is not a relative. Their voices are literally stilled: “A woman’s voice reveals her nakedness,” says a teacher at a conservative Muslim school, upbraiding girls for laughing in the courtyard, where they might be heard by workmen outside.
Still, Wadjda (first-time actor Waad Mohammed, who was 12 years old during filming) manages to live a relatively carefree existence. She has not quite reached the age where she can inspire lust, so she is able to hang out with her neighbor Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), who, as a boy, is privileged to roam their Riyadh suburb on a bicycle. Wadjda covets his freedom, and longs to race and beat him. When she sees - in a graceful, evocative scene - a green bicycle skimming along on top of a truck obscured by a wall, she is determined to have it, even though her mother (Saudi television actor Reem Abdullah) thinks she’s crazy to want it.
And so Wadjda begins to earn and save money to buy the bike, mostly by producing bits of mild contraband - mix tapes, bracelets in the colors of soccer clubs - that she sells to other girls in her school. Then she learns of a contest where the girl who best recites passages from the Koran will win more than enough to buy the bicycle. So our free spirit joins the religious club, and the exasperated headmistress Ms. Hussa (played by the mononymous Ahd, a U.S.-educated filmmaker and actor who has won a number of awards for her short films), unaware of Wadjda’s ulterior motives, believes she has gotten through to the kid.
A more serious theme lurks in the background - Wadjda’s mother is in danger of becoming a second wife; her husband (Sultan Al Assaf) is considering marrying a woman who might bear him a son. His plans unsettled, he only visits his family occasionally, and when he’s there he spends much of his time engrossed in point-and-shoot video games. Though he is affectionate with Wadjda when he’s there, the point is clear - if he marries again, they will be mainly on their own.
While there are a few glitchy moments in Al-Mansour’s script, she never presents us with characters that skew too virtuous or evil. Wadjda is an earnest girl but not above conniving to earn money or gossiping about her teachers. Her father isn’t evil - he just takes his freedoms for granted. In fact, there are no real villains in Wadjda. The gruff storekeeper who endures Wadjda’s impertinence turns out to be a softie, and even the hypocritical Hussa seems empathetic to Wadjda’s plight. While the feminism implicit in the film may seem daring, it is never strident.
It might be that the story behind the making of Wadjda is even more compelling than the one told onscreen.Al-Mansour insisted on making the film in Saudi Arabia, which meant she could not publicly mix with the men in her crew. So she worked mostly from the back of a van, giving instructions via walkie-talkie while following the action on a video monitor. It took her five years to raise money and complete the film, shot on location in Riyadh.
Wadjda succeeds on every level - it is a poignant and entertaining film that resolves in uplift even as it unsentimentally portrays the problems facing Saudi women. And maybe even more importantly, it allows us a glimpse inside a relatively affluent society (Wadjda and her mother live comfortably, despite enduring financial hardship) where most people abide in the interstitial territories between secular Western decadence and Islamic fundamentalism.
Wadjda 88 Cast: Waad Mohammed, Abdullrahman Al Gohani, Reem Abdullah, Ahd Director: Haifaa Al-Mansour Rating: PG, for subject matter Running time: 98 minutes In Arabic, with English subtitles
MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 11/01/2013
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