WadjdaMarch 22, 2014
Every week another movie promises to take us on a fantastic journey to a mysterious land. In this respect, Wadjda is more successful than all the big budget 3D epics churned out by the Hollywood studios. The mysterious land is Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and the journey proceeds along that slippery path from childhood to adulthood, as negotiated by a precocious 10 year-old tomboy.
Wadjda is allegedly the first feature film to be shot entirely within Saudi Arabia. Even more remarkable is the fact that the director is a woman – Haifaa Al-Mansour, who incidentally spent three years studying in Sydney. To put her achievements in context: there are no cinemas in Saudi Arabia; women are not allowed to drive a car, and have only just won voting rights. It is no exaggeration to say that women are often treated as if they were simply items of male property.
To avoid public hostility Al-Mansour spent part of the shoot sitting in a van directing her crew via walkie-talkie. The film owes its existence to the professionalism of a German production company and the personal backing of King Abdullah – which makes one mildly optimistic about the future of Arab cinema.
It might seem that the price of royal patronage would be an inhibited piece of story-telling that tries not to offend the nation’s conservative sensibilities. The truth is Wadjda is a movie that identifies the boundaries of acceptability and pushes against them in a brilliant, subtle manner. Although it is a tale that would barely raise an eyebrow in the west, it opens a window onto a new world for Saudi women.
Following in the footsteps of the great Persian filmmakers, and Arab directors from Algeria and Tunisia, Al-Mansour has been inspired by the problematic conventions of Islamic society. Her style is spare and unsentimental. She understands that tiny details can have huge significance. Instead of caricatures, she stresses the humanity and decency of characters who have learned to live within the sternest of moral codes.
For a western audience this approach allows us to empathise with an Arab world that gets demonised in popular culture. Al-Mansour spells out the nature of Saudi women’s oppression but she does not portray them as helpless victims, or the men as heartless chauvinists. The women in Wadjda have plenty of reasons to be sad about their lives but they are not fired by anger or rebellious zeal.
The protagonist, Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is an iconoclast, but being only 10 years old, her actions can be ascribed to the innocence and fearlessness of childhood. Wearing sneakers and jeans under the black abaya tends to obviate the chastening effect of this traditional costume. At home she listens to pop music and dreams of buying a green bicycle at the toy shop, so she can race her friend, Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani).
The problem is that girls are not supposed to ride bicycles, which are viewed by some moralists as a threat to virginity. Neither are they supposed to wear sneakers to school, or play unsupervised with boys. If Wadjda refuses to toe the line it’s partly because she has been brought up by two affectionate parents. She spends a lot of time alone with her mother (Reem Abdullah), as her father (Sultan Al Assaf) drifts in and out. The mother’s sorrow is that she has been unable to provide a son, and her husband is now under family pressure to take a second wife.
This is of less concern to Wadjda than the idée fixe of the bicycle. She sets out to raise the money secretly by small dodges and transactions at school. Her one chance at a windfall is a Qu’ran recital contest. Although she has previously been an indifferent student of the Qu’ran, she studies with the aid of a DVD program until she has mastered her subject. Without editorialising, this episode illustrates the futility of expecting children to appreciate religious values through a rote learning of the sacred text. As she pores over the words of the Prophet, Wadjda is thinking only of the green bike.
Al-Mansour is careful to show no disrespect to the Qu’ran or to Islam but she implies that the suffocating emphasis on correct behaviour breeds hypocrisy. The headmistress, Ms. Hussa (Ahd Kamel), is rumoured to have been found with a man in her apartment whom she passed off as a thief. This doesn’t prevent her taking a strict line with her students. Wadjda’s mother dreams of buying a red dress to attract her husband, knowing that she’ll never be able to wear it anywhere but at home.
Waad Mahommed is the latest in a line of child actors to arrive with a sparkling debut performance. She’s not quite as electric as Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild, but she shows that wearing the hijab need not prevent a girl from being bright, sassy and self-confident.
There’s an autobiographical aspect to the character, as Al-Mansour admits to once owning a green bicycle, given to her by her liberal-minded father. As a filmmaker, she would probably like us to recognise a nod to Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, and all the other movies that have used a bike as a symbol of freedom and object of desire. It may seem a small breakthrough, but women in Saudi Arabia have recently been given permission to cycle in certain areas, under certain conditions. Saudi women are on the move at last, and there’s no telling how far they will go.
Saudi Arabia/Germany, rated PG
Written & directed by Haifaa Al Mansour; starring Waad Mohammed, Reem Abdullah, Abdullrahman Al Gohani, Ahd Kamel, Sultan Al Assaf
Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 22 March, 2014.