Film #10: Wadjda (2012)
Director: Haifaa Al Mansour
Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is all that’s best about being an 11 year old girl. She is funny and feisty, long-legged and strong willed, and like many children before her she has her heart set on one thing: a bicycle.
Wadjda lives in Saudi Arabia where girls are discouraged from riding bikes, but that matters not at all to her. The culture around her sends a constant stream of messages about who Wadjda should be – quieter, more demure, more modest, more compliant – but she is untouched. She will be who she will be, and will only compromise when it suits her.
The story behind Wadjda matches that narrative surprisingly well. Saudi Arabia is an Islamic monarchy with ultra-conservative Wahhabism as the state-sponsored version of Islam. What this means for the film industry is that there it’s almost non-existent. There are no movie theaters in the nation of 27 million people: they were banned in the 1980s at the behest of conservative clerics. It’s also a country in which interactions between men and women are severely limited. And yet Haifaa Al Mansour, a female, made Wadjda – the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia with an all Saudi cast. It took five years of pursuing both funding and permission from the government, and the limitations on male/female interaction meant that Al Mansour often had to direct via walkie talkie from the back of a van. What she accomplished under those circumstances is amazing.
We suspect Wadjda is a free spirit the moment we see the Converse high tops and skinny jeans she wear under her abaya. She also listens to Western pop music and her best friend is a boy, Abdullah. It’s his bike that starts her dreaming of having her own: she’s convinced she could beat Abdullah in a race if she had half a chance After seeing a beautiful green bike with streamers in front of a local toy store, Wadjda decides to make her own chance. Her opportunity comes through a school “religion class” Koran-reciting contest with a cash prize of 1,000 riyal (the bike costs 800). Wadjda’s motivation and drive are more than adequate, but she doesn’t realize how rigged the system is against her goal.
Wadjda’s mother (Reem Abdullah), a school teacher, is facing her own battle to keep her husband from taking a second wife. She is far more acclimated to the oppression she faces as a female than is her daughter, but there are still moments when her frustrations break the surface. There’s a particularly poignant moment when she sees Wadjda looking at a family tree on the wall and explains to Wadjda that females are not included. Wadjda, irrepressible as usual, writes her name on a slip of paper and pins it to the family tree.
Wadjda is a surprisingly upbeat movie for one that is so direct in its criticism of the status quo. Much of the credit for that goes to Waad Mohammed, who in her first film is a delight. She radiates the kind of defiant hopefulness that brings about change. I suspect Al Mansour must possess the same quality.
Bonus Pick: Unstrung Heroes (1995)
Director: Diane Keaton
Diane Keaton made her directorial debut with this strange, melancholy comedy about a young boy, Steven (Nathan Watt), growing up in a very eccentric family. Andie McDowell, an actress who typically doesn’t have much range, is at her best here as a sane, solid, loving mother slowly dying of cancer. Jon, Turturro, Michael Richards, and Maury Chaykin are Steven’s father and uncles. Keaton seems at home with the characters quirks, making them not objects of ridicule but sympathetic people trying to deal with their own grief while caring for Steven.