Wadjda, a German-Saudi Arabian co-production was one of the films I missed last year which I most wanted to catch up with. The first feature film shot entirely in the KSA and the first to be directed by a Saudi woman, Wadjda was a film which I had hoped would wipe away my preconceived ideas about a nation I know little about. Unfortunately it acted to strengthen those ideas and actually add to them. It is however a thought provoking movie with a lot of heart and allows a glimpse behind the curtain and into a rarely seen land.
Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is a sprightly and industrious eleven year old girl living in Riyadh. It’s her dream to own a green bicycle which she spots in a local shop but more than that, she dreams of the freedom which would accompany owning the bike. Constricted by rules and religion, Wadjda is a rebel, wearing Converse trainers and listening to foreign pop music, she’s often at her School Principle’s office or causing her equally troubled mother concern. In order to earn the money for her prized bicycle, Wadjda enters a Koran reciting competition for which she studies (ahem) religiously.
For me, Wadjda provides extreme mixed messages. On the one hand, it’s a film about the search for freedom and enlightenment but it also shows Saudi Arabia to be a land of injustice, in which people blindly follow a God who requires the most ridiculous of rules and regulations to be strictly adhered to. The film made me angry, deeply angry, at the way in which half a population are respectfully disrespected. It’s almost unimaginable that women are forced to live in such a way as that they’re not allowed to drive, show their face or even be heard by men in public. In numerous scenes, women and girls cower, hide or move on in order that a man can’t see them. I find it heartbreaking.
Wadjda in particular, at eleven, is of the age for which individualism and freedom of expression are of the utmost importance. She’s beginning to discover who she is and should be allowed to express this but instead she’s shackled in body covering black and forbidden from engaging in the most childlike of activities, learning to ride a bike. The lack of intelligence and logic behind religion is shown with lines that praise God for the beauty of Pythagoras and dismay at the idea of a girl riding a bike less she loses her virginity to it! It’s some of the most ill-informed reasoning put on the big screen. Despite the unfathomable rules and backward ideals, Wadjda is a film that was directed in Saudi Arabia, by a Saudia Arabian woman. This in itself shows that there is more to the country than first meets the eye. Although director Haifaa al-Mansour often had to direct from the back of a car, away from male colleagues, the fact that she was allowed to direct proves that the country is capable of allowing women to partake in jobs and activities which many of the film’s characters appear to fight against.
As well as depicting the struggles of Wadjda, the film also focuses on the plight of an older woman, Wadjda’s mother (Reem Abdullah). Like her daughter, ‘mother’ as her character is officially named, is a bright and vivacious person with a lot to offer the world. Unfortunately she too is held back by her God’s and her country’s laws and suffers the indignity of her husband’s search for another wife, one who will bear him a son. It’s heart breaking to witness these two women struggle for the most basic of freedoms and acceptance for who they are and want to be. Their slightly differing attitudes towards life occasionally cause angst but thankfully bring them together for an uplifting conclusion.
In terms of film making aptitude, the movie is very well directed. One wouldn’t guess that the film is a debut feature and it’s obvious that al-Mansour not only has an eye for controversy but also a well developed director’s eye. The script is hugely powerful and as I’ve already discussed, opens up topics which are taboo in the KSA. Something which I especially enjoyed was the chance to gaze upon the streets of Saudi Arabia. In much the same way as 2011’s A Separation; I was able to look upon a country which I had not seen before. Unlike that terrific work though, my pre-conceived ideas were not turned on their head. While speaking of Iran on film, it’s coincidental that Wadjda most reminds me of the magnificent 2007 French animation Persepolis, set in 1970s Iran. Both tackle similar issues but go about it in differing ways.
I’m still not totally sure about how I feel regarding this film. I consider it to be both well made and brave and it holds a mirror up to Saudi Arabia, the reflection of which shines on both that country and the entire world. It made me angry and while ultimately uplifting, still left me feeling depressed, saddened for the millions of women living as second class citizens because of a magic sky man and some thousand year old rules.
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