mohamed abdullah

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.
Black Muslims Matter / Anti-Black Racism Webinar
Hosted by Boonaa Mohammed Featuring Dr. Abdullah Hakim Quick, Dr. Donna Auston and Imam Shadeed Muhammad

Hosted by Boonaa Mohammed
Featuring Dr. Abdullah Hakim Quick, Dr. Donna Auston and Imam Shadeed Muhammad

I love that they’re talking about how problematic Hamza Yusuf is straight off the bat.

Now, Black Muslims are telling you that what Hamza Yusuf said was was Problematic towards the Black Community, HEAR US.

Princess Haya bint al Hussein and her brother Prince Ali bin Al Hussein with their Children
Princess Jalila bint Ali, Prince Abdullah bin Ali, Sheikha al Jalila bint mohammad al Maktoum and Sheikh Zayed bin Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum

Lieutenant General Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart, a rare breed.

Following family expectation Carton went to Balliol College, Oxford, where he lasted not a year before leaving to join the British Army at the time of the Second Boer War, sometime in 1899. His father was left oblivious until Carton received his first serious wounds, these to the stomach and groin. Carton returned to South Africa before transferring to India in 1902. He spent the years until 1914 enjoying life in the British Empire, running, playing sports and shooting. Part of Europe’s Catholic aristocracy he spent leave travelling through Europe, shooting on various estates.

Things began to liven up as the First World War kicked off in 1914. He first went to Somalia where Britain were still fighting a colonial war with the  followers of Mohammed bin Abdullah, “Mad Mullah” to the British. There he was shot twice in the face, losing his eye and a portion of an ear. Shrugging this off however, by February 1915 he was on the Western Front. By years end he had lost his left hand, removing his own fingers when a doctor declined to do the job. On the Somme he was shot through the skull and ankle, at Passchendaele through the hip, at Cambrai through the leg and at Arras through the ear. In July 1916, aged 36, he won the Victoria Cross, taking control of a battlefield after three battalion Commanders became casualties; ‘passing unflinchingly through fire barrage of the most intense nature.’

He spent the interwar years in diplomatic service, mostly in Poland where he made Royal friendships and shot each day on a 500,000 acre estate. As World War 2 interrupted his peace he made valuable strategic contributions to Poland’s resistance. While retreating with the Polish commander Rydz-Śmigły to Romania his car convoy was attacked by the Luftwaffe, killing his wife.

Promoted to acting major-general, in November 1940 he led a small force to occupy a small Norwegian town. Things quickly went wrong and he wound up being attacked by German ski troops and machine gunned and bombed from the air while the German Navy was landing troops to his rear. He suggested withdrawal but was told to hang on, so he did, until a few days later his force was finally rescued by the Royal Navy - led through the fog by Lord Louis Mountbatten.

Sent to Serbia in a Wellington Bomber six months later, both engines failed off the coast of Italian-controlled Libya. The plane crashed a mile from the shore, knocking Carton unconscious, but the cold water brought him to. Swimming ashore he became a prisoner of war. Unsurprisingly he made five escape attempts, one tunneling endeavour taking seven months. Rather amusingly, given he was a 61 year old pale skinned male with one eye, one arm and no knowledge of Italian, he spent eight days on the run disguised as an Italian peasant.

Back in England, after the capitulation of Italy, Carton was summoned to spend a night with Churchill at Chequers. Churchill was sending him to China as his personal representative. There he reported mainly on the rise of the Chinese Communists, who he despised. Meeting Mao at a dinner event, he interrupted the father of modern China’s speech to criticise his lack of effort in fighting the Japanese. The surprised Chairmen laughed, probably very nervously. After visiting Singapore for the Japanese surrender and then Tokyo to meet Douglas MacArthur, the 66 year old Carton de Wiart retired in October 1947. He died age 83 on 5 June 1963 after many years quietly fishing for Salmon and shooting Snipe in County Cork, Ireland.

“Governments may think and say as they like, but force cannot be eliminated, and it is the only real and unanswerable power. We are told that the pen is mightier than the sword, but I know which of these weapons I would choose.” ― Adrian Carton de Wiart

“I have been playing the violin for nearly ten years now. In the early years, it was frown upon for woman to play the violin, especially in public areas. I used to hear negative comments from people. But that has changed, it is more socially accepted now. I teach young girls how to play violin now.” Lama Abdullah Mohamed Ahmed Eyon, a 31-year-old violin player from Khartoum, Sudan 

Source: Aljazeera English