Wadjda is the first film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, but even more importantly – it’s the first Saudi film made by a female director. And even though Haifaa al-Mansour had to be in a van for the larger part of film’s production when directing on the streets of Riyadh due to strict gender segregation and had to use walkie-talkies to communicate with the rest of the film crew, it is still an incredibly important achievement for a woman to be allowed to direct a film in this male dominated society.
Haifaa al-Mansour was born in Saudi Arabia, but hasn’t lived there since she left to attend the University – first to study comparative literature in Cairo and latter to attend film school in Sydney, Australia. It took her five years to find financial backing and getting permission to film Wadjda – a story supposedly inspired by her niece and her own childhood memories, although one could argue that the main theme of the film strongly resembles Iranian cinematic tradition, where stories about children are frequently used for subtle critiques of their society.
As we follow 11 years old Wadjda through her life we’re slowly introduced to a very straightforward criticism of the subordinate position of women in a country where everyday life is still very much dictated by religion. On many occasions we can see how much power the society has over the individuals – one of the stronger examples is probably the narrative shift when Wadjda’s dad (who is clearly very much in love with his first wife), submits to his parents wishes and marries another woman. Another similar event is when the (unmarried) school headmistress accuses her lover of breaking into her home and attacking her, so that she can avoid being publicly disgraced and discredited. And then there are those little details, that nonetheless tell us a great deal about Saudi society: how the schoolgirls must hide from the playground when construction men are working on a roof nearby and how Wadjda’s mother must have a driver because women are not allowed to drive a car. Any means of transport is actually prohibited for a woman to drive, including a bike, for they believe it causes infertility. But Wadjda doesn’t care about these rules – she’s determined to get a green bike from a local shop, even if it means that she must participate in a Quran recital competition to win a cash prize that would allow her to pay for the bike.
Even though the film includes women of many different generations, it is mainly focused on Wadjda who is still considered a child and doesn’t have a status of a woman yet. This is the only reason that she can get away with her rebelling against gender roles. She comes to the school without hijab, she wears black Converse shoes, walks around with cassette player in her backpack and listens to »Western« rock music – all of which infuriates the headmistress, who at one point even threatens her with expulsion. The character of headmistress is thus particularly interesting, because it is she, and not the men, who seems the most strict and fundamentalist in her religious beliefs – indicating that women are often not mere victims of the suffocating patriarchy, but can just as well perpetrate the system that is keeping them in the oppressed position.
As a young girl Wadjda can afford to be headstrong. But one can’t help but wonder what will happen to her in a couple of years when society starts to perceive her as a grown woman? The story also introduces us to her friendship with a boy named Abdullah who accepts her for who she is. But when he tells her that he means to marry her when they grow up it is hard not to wonder what will happen with their relationship when she’ll become his wife – will they still be equal, riding their bikes together or will he, as a man, gain power over her, a woman? Film doesn’t give any answers to the questions it raises, but it suggests (with the end scene, when Wadjda finally goes for a ride with her new bike – a scene that wonderfully resembles the ending of Truffaut’s French New Wave classic, The 400 Blows) that this is the time of a new generation that will quite possibly be able to overcome gender differences. Although we can also interpret it in a more pessimistic way, with her riding on a bike representing one of her last moments of freedom.
This is a wonderful coming-of-age story set in a country that we know almost nothing of. It is a great introduction to the Saudi culture (as well as to the Islamic culture in general) and thus a must-see film for all generations comfortably (and all too often ignorantly) living in their Eurocentric, Western bubble. In an age where fear of the unknown culture is yet again bringing up intolerance and hate all over Europe, films like this are the best kind of weapon to crush the stereotypes, to make us understand a different reality at least a bit better and to turn intolerance into something more positive: acceptance and permission to assimilate.
Directed by: Haifaa Al-Mansour
Written by: Haifaa Al-Mansour
Starring: Waad Mohammed, Abdullrahman Al Gohani, Reem Abdullah, Sultan Al Assaf, Ahd
Running Time: 98 minutes