Seen: On dvd on my tv, rented from netflix.
Once in a while I remember my ancient quest to see a film from every country with a film industry, a goal I very, very gradually work toward. A few months ago I found out about Wadjda, the first film directed by a Saudi woman, and likely the first feature shot entirely within Saudi Arabia. Pioneering filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour was inspired by her spunky niece to craft this tale about a bold schoolgirl, Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), who dreams of getting a bicycle so she can race against a boy in her neighborhood (Abdullrahman Al Gohani). She schemes to make the money to afford it, selling contraband jewelry at school and eventually competing in a Quran-recitation contest for the top prize. Meanwhile, at home her mother (Reem Abdullah) struggles to please her husband, who threatens to find a new wife who can bear him a son.
Entirely focused on women’s day-to-day experience, Wadjda takes a seemingly simple premise and uses it to reveal a larger context. Al-Mansour stresses that though there are many limitations placed on women in Saudi Arabia, they still have lives to lead, and they aren’t passive. In this world, women’s domain is the kitchen, the bedroom, the classroom; their interactions are primarily with other women- mothers, daughters, teachers, coworkers, friends. These quiet, private spaces and interactions are the true focus of the film, with Wadjda’s schemes to procure a bicycle basically serving as a framing device. The relationship she has with her mother forms the core, as they navigate the harsh realities of a devout, patriarchal society that they must find small ways to combat. We root for Wadjda to get her bike because it symbolizes her irrepressible spirit, and because you can just tell she’s going to make it work. She represents the new generation, in which Al-Mansour sees hope for a more progressive culture.
It’s not all some exposé on gender roles in Saudi Arabia, Wadjda is primarily just a really great film. As the title character, Waad Mohammed is adorable and hilarious and downright plucky. She speaks her mind and pushes against conservative restrictions placed on her, but finds her elders are more and more stringent, likely due to her sort of in-between age. Her defiance is admirable but ultimately kind of pointless. Luckily, her mom is awesome and together they made me cry. Also her little friend is a sweetie and I’m pretty sure their relationship will be a more caring, open-minded one than Wadjda’s parents, if only because he seems to like her DGAF attitude. Their interactions are very funny, and feel realistic.
I know very little about life in Saudi Arabia, or Muslim culture in the Middle East, so I would never presume to understand what it is like for women living there. But I appreciated Al-Mansour’s seemingly even-handed take on it, as she is careful to show honest experience without condemnation or melodrama. For me, the glimpse into the private lives of these women was enlightening, and I couldn’t help but draw parallels to women in my own family, and especially relationships between husbands and wives, mothers and daughters. The director’s ultimate message seems to be that things are very tough for women in this environment- where they’re not allowed to drive or interact with men outside their families- but there’s no doubt they’ll persevere, and gradually things will get better. And maybe one day Wadjda will be president or something. You never know.
Pair This Movie With: I’m leaning towards something like Pan’s Labyrinth or Tideland mainly because the main characters’ ages are similar, but those are also way darker. Maybe something like Saved!, which is a little peppier and also deals with religious restrictions placed on young women.