by Matt Levine
Wadjda is a film of “firsts”: both the first movie shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and the first to be directed by a Saudi Arabian woman, Wadjda inherently carries with it a certain amount of cultural cachet. The story of a headstrong young girl in Riyadh who longs to buy a bike—and who enters a Qu’ran-recitation contest offering a cash prize in order to do so—the film’s production encountered some peculiar difficulties, largely owing to a Saudi society still dominated by repressive patriarchy. The writer-director, Haifaa Al Mansour, was forced to direct many exterior scenes from the back of a van, as cultural mores prevented her from openly communicating with her mostly male crew. To add to the production’s conspicuousness, Al Mansour’s collaborators were largely foreign: though Wadjda did receive funding from the Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal (who owns his own production company), it heavily depended on German equipment and resources culled from a number of studios, eventually providing the film with an international distribution network. Al Mansour’s uncompromising devotion to her film—and her adamancy in shooting entirely in her homeland, despite the obstacles this decision presented—are undoubtedly trailblazing, pointing towards the future potential of a burgeoning Saudi cinema.
Director: Haifaa Al Mansour
Producers: Gerhard Meixner, Roman Paul
Writer: Haifaa Al Mansour
Cinematographer: Lutz Reitemeier
Editor: Andreas Wodraschke
Music: Max Richter
Cast: Reem Abdullah, Waad Mohammed, Abdullrahman Algohani, Ahd, Sultan Al Assaf, Alanoud Sajini, Rafa Al Sanea, Dana Abdullilah, Rehab Ahmed, Nouf Saad, Ibrahim Almozael, Mohammed Zahir
Countries: Saudi Arabia/Germany
Premiere: August 31, 2012 – Venice Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: September 13, 2013
US Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Yet this compelling backstory also suggests the possibility that Wadjda is more interesting contextually than in and of itself; had the film been unsuccessful, it might have amounted to little more than a footnote in cinematic history. Thankfully, this is far from the case: Wadjda is as immersive emotionally as it is admirable politically, pulsating with warmth and optimism. In its simple but fascinating story, Wadjda brings to mind both Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) in the social (im)mobility that its vehicular metaphor represents, as well as Majid Majidi’s Iranian film Children of Heaven (1997), about a brother and sister sharing a pair of shoes (and forging an indissoluble bond in the process).
Wadjda’s shoes are, in fact, the first thing we see in the film: a pair of grungy sneakers in stark contrast to the black dress shoes her classmates wear, this introduction is a heavy-handed but striking demonstration of Wadjda’s iconoclasm. A young rebel mostly disinterested in the Qu’ranic stricture so dogmatically passed down by her elders, Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) blares international radio stations in her bedroom and acerbically talks back to the men who, at times, callously dominate Wadjda and her mother. (When her mother’s boorish driver admits that he didn’t attend school, Wadjda replies, “That’s obvious—you don’t have any manners.”) Often refraining from wearing her hijab (leading to repeated punishment at school), Wadjda silently observes the sexism of her culture and wants only the freedom so often denied to her countrywomen. This freedom arrives in the form of a green bike with flowing streamers, which suddenly appears at a village store owned by a kindly shopkeeper. The bike acts a natural symbol for Wadjda’s youthful innocence and her restless desire for mobility (in every sense of the word).
“Girls don’t ride bikes,” Wadjda’s mother sternly yet compassionately tells her—which, of course, only amplifies her desire. Wadjda’s quest for the bike could have been a ham-handed rallying cry for Saudi women to wrest a fraction of entitlement away from their male counterparts, and at times it is; some of the subplots, including the persecution of two schoolgirls for supposed lesbianism (simply because they’re lounging in the courtyard together), come off as preachy and obvious. But for the most part Wadjda’s narrative is touching and engrossing, thanks to the emphasis Al Mansour places on sincere human relationships. The writer-director has noted that she rewrote her original script, which was much bleaker and more didactic, in order to focus instead on the characters’ emotional interactions—a sensitivity to both the graciousness and the flaws of human nature which prevents the film from becoming a mundane message movie. The film is clearly sympathetic to the plight undergone by an eclectic ensemble of female characters: Leila (Sara Aljaber), who holds a comparatively progressive job at a hospital and encourages Wadjda’s mother to apply; Salma (Dana Abdullilah), one of Wadjda’s young classmates, who has already been offered as a wife to an unseen twenty-year-old man; Ms. Hussa (Ahd), the school’s draconic headmistress, who instills a deferent subservience in her pupils even as she tries to conceal her own love affairs.
Yet the film’s most affecting relationship is between Wadjda and her mother (Reem Abdullah). No longer able to conceive children after Wadjda’s problematic birth, her mother struggles to prevent Wadjda’s father from taking a second wife who might be able to provide him with a male heir. With her father away from home for weeks at a time, Wadjda has only her mother to raise her; they sympathize with each other’s repression, even when her mother rebukes Wadjda for her bullheadedness. The mother’s reprimands obviously come from a place of love, a concern for Wadjda’s future and her safety within a volatile patriarchy; yet she is also proud of her daughter’s intrepid nature, perhaps wishing she had the same fearlessness. When she tells Wadjda late in the film that she’s all she has in the world, it would take a heart of stone not to be moved at least slightly; and when, moments later, Wadjda’s mother reveals the loving sacrifice she has made for her, the tears may start flowing irrepressibly.
Wadjda should also be commended for its deft characterizations of its male characters, who are less prominent than the women but conspicuous in their dominion. Wadjda’s father is not the monster he could have been: his relationship with his daughter is conveyed lovingly, and he seems to care deeply for his wife—he has long resisted pressure from his friends and family to marry for a second time. Yet he is, of course, criticized for succumbing to the male entitlement (sexual, economic, and otherwise) that is viewed as a given in Saudi culture. The film achieves a tricky balancing act: it avoids vilifying all men, as evidenced by the shopkeeper who reserves Wadjda’s bike for her (after she charmingly makes him a mixtape), in awe of her dedication; but it also never lets us forget the sexist repression under which Wadjda and her mother live. The evidence of this chauvinism can be acute and disturbing, as when a male construction worker leeringly invites Wadjda inside to “play”; but it’s often more powerful in its subtler forms—for example, when Wadjda’s father’s family tree is devoid of female relatives. After Wadjda pins her own name next to her father’s, she later finds the scrap of paper with her name on it brusquely tossed aside.
The most hopeful male-female relationship in the film is between Wadjda and the sweet-natured boy next door, Abdullah (Abdullrahman Algohani). One of Wadjda’s main motivations for getting her bike is so she can race Abdullah, playfully proving that she is his equal regardless of gender. In his youthful open-mindedness, Abdullah often finds the virile masculinity of his elders absurd—he ridicules his uncle's enormous mustache by claiming that a falcon could nest in it. When he buys Wadjda a helmet (long before she even has her bicycle), this loving gesture seems to suggest that the sexual politics of the future might be less discriminatory in the hands of men like him. Their puppy love is practically impossible to resist, especially considering how charmingly it’s performed by these young actors.
Obviously Wadjda is transgressive in its critique of male tyranny, yet it’s also subversive in other ways. Particularly surprising is the film’s near-blasphemous (as some would have it) attack on the religiosity of Saudi culture. When Wadjda enters her school’s Qu’ran recital, it’s clear that she has zero interest in the lessons taught therein; her diligent studying of the text is solely for the purpose of winning her prize money. When she does, she foolishly tells her principal that she intends to buy a bike with her reward—causing the headmistress to suggest that they donate it to the Palestinian cause instead. (This is how the film ably avoids turning its climactic contest into a clichéd underdog triumph: Wadjda’s joy in winning first place is almost immediately quashed by her superiors.) Wadjda cannot logically be seen as an attack on Islam, since the tenets of open-mindedness and humanity promulgated in the Qu’ran are clearly disobeyed by many of the adults surrounding Wadjda—the film criticizes Muslims who untruthfully purport to adhere to their religion’s teachings, not the religion itself. Yet the audacity with which Wadjda exploits religious piousness for her own ends is still somewhat shocking in context.
If the movie is provocative in some ways, it is also unquestionably timid in others: Wadjda provides a tidy narrative with an uplifting ending, progressive in theme yet conventional in story and aesthetic style. Some critics lambasted the film’s more generic aspects, claiming it’s disappointing to see such a significant achievement adhere to simple clichés; others applauded the film’s engrossing storytelling, arguing that Wadjda’s easy accessibility disseminates its sociopolitical themes more widely. The truth is somewhere in between: of course Wadjda doesn’t approach the level of greatness of, say, This Is Not a Film (2011), a truly incendiary and innovative film produced under similarly oppressive circumstances; yet it’s hard to criticize the movie for its narrative simplicity when that story is conveyed so powerfully and compellingly. The film doesn’t try to deconstruct cinematic form or provide political analysis; it attempts to relate a sympathetic story that might be indicative of a larger experience, and it succeeds.
Wadjda’s capitulation to what Western audiences expect to see could be seen as pandering to an international audience: though the film doesn’t indulge American and European tastes as blatantly as No One Knows About Persian Cats (2009), its references to American music and movies do occasionally cater to the Western liberal audiences that would provide the film with its foreign box-office dollars. Yet at the same time, the film’s fascinating depiction of modern life in Riyadh lends the film a cultural specificity, and its ending provides an expectant hope for the country’s future (as Wadjda lingers optimistically at a crossroads, perhaps like the nation itself). The cinematography by Lutz Reitemeier may not be audacious, but give it credit for vividly conveying the eclectic, rapidly-building milieu of urban Riyadh. Of course, the dynamism of the cinematography may partially rely on the fact that modern Saudi Arabia has never been manifested onscreen so fully, and the power of the narrative may depend on the uniqueness of the setting—but so what? That doesn’t change Wadjda’s emotional impact or the vivacity with which it presents its sociopolitical critique. This is an auspicious debut for both Saudi Arabian cinema as an industry and for writer-director Haifaa Al Mansour in particular—one can only hope that her next cinematic endeavor will be orchestrated under more hospitable circumstances.