Wadjda (2012, Saudi Arabia)
No matter what is written in the coming decades, Haifaa al-Mansour’s Wadjda will always be remembered as the first feature-length film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia – a nation without a film industry as of 2015 (Wadjda was financed in Germany and many of its crewmembers are German). It is also the first feature-length film directed by a Saudi woman. Almost three years after its debut at the Venice Film Festival, Wadjda has not even received an official release in its country of origin – which has only one cinema: an IMAX theater that screens documentaries as part of Scitech, a science-technology museum in Khobar. Reaction from religious conservatives to the very existence of Wadjda has been hostile; for the foreseeable future, Wadjda will be more warmly received abroad than at home. If one eliminates all of these historical precedents, Wadjda is a rather simple, personable story with a typical rebellious, assiduous protagonist you can’t help but root for.
10-year old Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) lives in Riyadh with her mother (Saudi TV actress Reem Abdullah) and dreams of purchasing a new green bicycle so as to race her friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani). Girls should not be riding bikes, so the Islamic scholars and self-appointed moral police – her parents, other elders, other men, teachers, etc. – say. Wadjda’s traditional mother is distracted by her husband’s (Sultan Al Assaf) philandering and attempts to secure a second wife. She is not only a rebel in the streets or the household, but also the classroom. Though not raising hell for hell’s sake, she often finds herself in trouble with her Koran teacher (Nouf Saad) and the headmistress of her school Ms. Hussa (Ahd). Later on, Wadjda learns that there is a Koran recitation contest with a cash prize that could pay for her fgreen bike and then some. Guess who wins? I’ll give you three tries.
How much of a rebel is Wadjda? Where the rest of the girls at her school wear traditional shoes, Wadjda prefers to take along her worn black Converses. She listens to heavy English-language modern rock and sells mixtapes of that music for her bicycle fund. When other girls follow custom and head indoors when there are men present, Wadjda continues to play outside, finishing a round of hopscotch without a care in the world. She speaks up when she is supposed to stay silent – “A woman’s voice is her nakedness,” Ms. Hussa insists as she sees a bit of her rebellious past in Wadjda; Wadjda’s elders and teachers believe her behavior is just a phase and will be unsustainable as childhood falls away. A rebellious young girl defying gendered and religious expectations is no longer groundbreaking; only the setting of Wadjda prevents the film from being mired in more cliché.
What surprised me is the fact that Waad Mohammed, who played Wadjda, is a non-professional actress in her first – and, at this moments, appears to be perhaps her only – film role. Recalling Italian neorealism’s commonplace practice to hire non-professionals, the practice works here. Never does Wadjda feel needlessly precocious or overly nasty. Instead, Mohammed retains a playfulness and determined face in spite of all the men and women telling her character how she should behave, dress, and speak.
A more contemporary influence on Mohammed’s performance and how Wadjda is written can be found in certain children’s films of Iranian and Japanese cinema. In Iran, filmmakers have long realized that concentrating their narratives on children allow them to insert more social commentary than typical as they hide their messaging under the guise of a supposedly well-meaning children’s movie. Majid Majidi’s Children of Heaven (1997, Iran) and Abbas Kiarostami’s Where Is My Friend’s Home? (1987, Iran) are Wadjda’s cinematic spiritual predecessors. Go even further back and one might find the likes of Yasujiro Ozu’s I Was Born, But… (1932, Japan) and Ozu’s color (partial) remake in Good Morning (1959, Japan). In all of these films, children are the mobilizing dynamos of their personal desires and – for their respective eras and political climates unconducive to freedoms of dissent – embody the anxieties and fears of their parents and other elders. Notice how little agency – if not agency, than motivation – the adults have compared to their children to promote positive societal change. Yet in those small snippets where Wadjda and her mother are out shopping, Wadjda interacting with the store owner who has the bicycle she wishes to purchases, and sliver of regret in Ms. Hussa’s voice as she reminds her students of Wahhabist norms and how they should not be broken.
Could Wadjda have been a bolder political statement? Perhaps, but over-politicizing a girl’s desire to purchase and ride a bicycle could have touched nerves within the Saudi conservative camp that might have turned public opinion against the film and any sense of a newfound Saudi film industry (even now, any notions of a Saudi film industry are a distant dream). Al-Mansour, who has been living in Bahrain with her American diplomat husband for the last several years, elects instead to concentrate on the mundane. Her film is positioned towards a foreign audience, not a Saudi one. Instead of sociopolitical commentary, Wadjda would rather show ordinary life episodes to show what Wadjda and her mother do around and outside the household. Whether her mother is trying out a new red dress she couldn’t possibly wear outdoors, her father partaking in violent video games (it’s a PlayStation 1 of all things), taking kettles off of stoves, or getting ready for school, this is a film that a leisurely pace. Some of these moments are as seamlessly integrated as they should be. Supporting characters are one-dimensional and Wadjda herself is a relatively static protagonist whose insubordinate brilliance is a constant means to an end.
But none of this should take away from the fact that Wadjda and her mother have a joyous, beautiful bond. They have shared moments of subversion from Saudi gendered cultural norms and a lot of their understanding is communicated without dialogue. There’s a familiarity between these two, a mutual adoration that is an immense pleasure to watch.
Perhaps Haifaa al-Mansour may not be the one female auteur from the Middle East that will come to define a generation of filmmakers in the region. Geez, talk about hyperbole and unhealthy expectations. What should be celebrated instead is that Wadjda simply exists and that it is a good film that depicts a sphere of life many who will see the film have never even seen before. Other than literature, I have always believed that cinema is one of the most democratic art forms; its youth compared to other art forms has made it the offspring of economic and sociopolitical internationalization. From its onset, film allowed for a diversity of voices never encountered before. Wadjda is one of many milestones in a need for ideological and narrative diversity. Just because it is one of many does not diminish its achievements; in fact, the circumstances surrounding its existence and lack of an official premiere in its country of origin makes it all the more remarkable.
As Wadjda pedals her bicycle out across an empty, sand-strewn Riyadh street, for the first time, there is a gleeful, infectious smile on her face as bright as the cloudless sky above her. It may take time, but there needs to be more cinematic stories with a remorseless independence to consume, whether they be intended for Saudi audiences, foreign audiences, or one of the world. It should be the wish for anyone who loves cinema that it is so. May Wadjda lead to the blossoming of something of extraordinary beauty and meaning.
My rating: 7.5/10
^ Based on my personal imdb rating. Half-points are always rounded down.