Film Reviews


By • Oct 10th, 2013 •

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It’s perhaps a happy result of the Arab Spring that we get the arrival of WADJDA, the first feature film by a Saudi Arabian woman director. In fact, it’s the first full-length feature film to be shot in Saudi Arabia at all. Writer-director Haifaa Al Mansour was raised on a wide range of home video (as Saudi Arabia has no public movie theaters), educated at the American University in Cairo, and has become a pioneer filmmaker in her country.

Here she gives us the story of Wadjda, a spunky ten year-old girl struggling with an ordinary childhood in the midst of the repressive society of Riyadh, winningly played by Waad Mohammed in her feature debut. Like any young girl, she has her school routine, she listens to pop music, and she helps her mother make dinner. In her case, though, the school seems to be little more than an Islamic madrassa where the girls recite the Koran, the pop music is deemed evil, and if the dinner is being prepared for guests of Wadjda’s father, then the women are obliged to hide out of sight.

Wadjda endures all this as well as she can, snatching enjoyable moments whenever possible, flashing her toothy grin, finding the chance to pal around with a neighborhood boy, Abdullah. And the most determined dream of her life is to have a bicycle. She has her eye on an enticing green model at a local store, and she dreams of racing off with Abdullah, who’s apparently the one person in her life who hasn’t pigeon-holed her in the traditional cage for girls. It’s a sweet, simple dream in much of the world, and not an unreasonable one.

But in Saudi Arabia, a girl shouldn’t be riding a bicycle. Even Wadjda’s loving mother (the prominent Saudi television actress Reem Abdullah) is quick to voice concerns that it might pose a threat to Wadjda’s virginity. Less overtly, a bicycle has always symbolized freedom, dating back to its introduction in the 19th century–all the more so in a society where women are not even permitted to drive cars, so that Wadjda’s mother herself is completely dependent on her sullen male driver.

Still, Wadjda is slowly, perseveringly saving up her money, laboriously braiding bracelets to surreptitiously sell to her schoolmates. And when she hears about the school’s upcoming Koran competition, with the sizable prize money that would cover the bicycle, she settles down to study, hoping to win out over her more properly pious schoolfellows. But she has no allies with her secret plan. There is no sympathetic teacher to help with her memorization, no supportive family to urge her to follow her dream. She is as alone, in her own way, as a western hero, bolstered by nothing except her own determination.

Haifaa Al Mansour shows the metaphorical prisons of this restricted world, as Wadjda struggles against that pattern of learned helplessness. During the day, Wadjda is immured at school, where the stern headmistress regards her disapprovingly, sensing that rebellious streak. Wadjda is already encumbered by a full-length, long-sleeved gray dress, but that’s not enough for the schoolmistress, who orders her to start wearing a full abaya as well. The girls must scurry inside from the schoolyard when it’s noticed that they’re visible to workmen on a nearby roof, and Wadjda is even reprimanded for talking too loudly. “A woman’s voice is her nakedness,” she is scolded. At the same time, Al Mansour provides an analogous glimpse of the contrasting physical spaces, the unlimited urban outdoors with the wide empty streets where the men are passing, and the closed-off interior rooms of the unseen women.

Nevertheless, this is a restrained, even-handed look at the hidden women’s world of The Kingdom, as Saudi Arabia is termed. Even though the filmmaker’s indignation is palpable, she includes moments of warmth and humor, and strives to be neither sentimental nor didactic.

Ironically, Al Mansour had parallel difficulties of her own in making WADJDA, since the restrictions against Saudi women in public often obliged her to be hiding in a van, directing via a walkie-talkie. Similarly, she had difficulties casting the central role, since most Saudi parents didn’t look favorably on the idea of having a daughter show herself in a movie. Indeed, young Waad Mohammed probably faces an early end to any acting career, as her parents in real life hope to have her married off while she’s still in her teens.

One can only hope that with this receiving wide recognition via international film festivals, WADJDA will be seen in many countries across the world. Because there aren’t any movie theaters in Saudi Arabia.

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