Haifaa al Mansour, “Wadjda” (2012)
A heart-warming film on one girl’s desire for freedom, especially the freedom to be true to herself, “Wadjda” is remarkable for being the first Saudi film to be made by a female Saudi director. Shot mostly from the point of view of its young protagonist Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), the film demonstrates how persistence, hard work, hope and being true to oneself can reap rewards greater than money or winning the approval of one’s elders. The film also looks at how middle-class Saudi women cope with the restrictions placed on them by government, to the extent that they cannot drive and must rely on male chauffeurs to ferry them about, and that they cannot allow themselves to be seen in public by strange men.
When we first meet the 10-year-old Wadjda, she’s already a rebellious kid who loves Western pop and rock, wears sneakers to school and never has her headscarf secured properly to cover her hair. She is an entrepreneurial go-getter who makes pocket money by making plaits for football clubs and selling them to the girls at school. She befriends a boy of her age, Abdullah (Abdurrahman al Golani) who has a bicycle. Wadjda wants one as well and coaxes a local shopkeeper into keeping a recently imported bike for her. The bike costs 1,000 riyals so to raise the money Wadjda enters her school’s Koran-reciting competition which offers a first prize of … 1,000 riyals.
Wadjda’s teachers at the hardline conservative girls’ school are surprised at the girl’s sudden turnabout from secular slouch to devoted religious convert but do not suspect what she wants the money for. The girl keeps busy doing normal lessons and then learning and reciting various Koranic surahs off by heart, and in her spare time secretly learning to ride Abdullah’s bike under the boy’s tutelage.
Meanwhile Wadjda’s mum (Reem Abdullah), a teacher, is at loggerheads with Wadjda’s dad because Dad desires a son but Mum cannot give him one. He is in negotiations with a family to acquire a second wife. As a result Dad comes and goes quite often, and is away for long periods leaving his unhappy wife and rebellious child on their own. The film does a good job limning the mother’s frustrations at her restricted life: arguing with her driver Iqbal (because as a woman she is forbidden from driving her own car) and going shopping for glamorous showy dresses which she knows she cannot wear away from home. One comes to understand how Wadjda might have become a rebel, seeing her parents unhappy with each other and both yearning for what they cannot have. Mother and daughter come to develop a close relationship which is often strained but turns out to be rock solid when Dad finally abandons them.
In its own deceptive simple and minimal style, “Wadjda” has a great deal to say about the nature of religious oppression and the stifling of normal human social intercourse this creates. In a society that denies women freedom of movement, Wadjda’s mother and teachers are horrified that the girl wants a bicycle, and do all they can to prevent her from having one. It is significant that women are the ones who zealously police girls’ behaviour and ensure they do not offend any men. With the exception of young Abdullah, the male characters are passive bystanders who do not affect the direction of the plot in any way; even the father simply disappears with the likelihood that he will continue supporting his wife and daughter financially at least.
The restrictions on women’s movements certainly affect the female characters in major ways but there is an insinuation that the male characters also suffer from those restrictions indirectly. One gets the impression that the men are rather infantile, not fully adult, and the women a strange and unpleasant mix of grim and unyielding strictness, hysterical superstition and amoral childishness. It seems to me that societies where fundamentalist religion rules absolutely not only turn out to be police state societies moulding people’s thinking and outlook but also breed people lacking internal moral compasses with the result that hypocrisy and corruption go hand in hand deeply and across society along with the repression.
The acting is minimal and matter-of-fact with Waad Mohammed holding this viewer quite spellbound with her character’s cheek and cleverness. People in the film either admire her or fear her chutzpah. The character of the mother is perhaps the most complicated and puzzling: like Wadjda, she yearns for freedom but is very much a submissive creature of the society she grew up in. The Riyadh setting gives the film a sunny and bright look, which is rather ironic given the nature of the repressive society portrayed and its poisonous effects on both women and men alike. Wadjda’s family home is surprisingly opulent, redolent of great family wealth; it would have been interesting to see where Abdullah’s family lives and what the house and its furnishings look like.
The film’s ending is an incredible surprise and speaks of hope in overcoming barriers both physical, mental and psychological in a context of despair and sadness.