Wadjda, a story about a girl-child’s dream that runs counter to her Saudi Arabian culture, and how she goes about achieving it, is a wonderfully poignant film not to be missed. Far more than a coming of age story told from a child’s point of view—which it is—it is a sensitive depiction of a mother and daughter relationship; it is a very personal glimpse into the life of women in a the most female-repressive society in the world, but portrayed through a straight-forward narrative devoid of any heavy-handed polemic. In stark clarity, set against myriad visual and textural details of a place of dun-colored monotony, we see how it is often the women who are the enforcers of the rules that their sex are to follow—and prepare girls from childhood onward—for their existence in a soul-killing, cruel, patriarchal society, all in the name of hypocritical honor and religious/cultural piety.
Remembering that Western Christian patriarchal culture was just as cruel and crushingly oppressive of its women for over 1600 years, and our American and European laws and opportunity changes (for women) are less than 200 years in the making, it is appropriate to remind that Islam is 600 years younger than Christianity, and much of the premise and beliefs of both religions very similar. The most radical and cheering message of Wadjda is that a change isn’t just possible, but inevitable. Women like writer/director Haifaa al-Mansour creating spunky Wadjda’s, relentless in pursuit of their dreams (and her best friend Abdullah—a male) will make it so.
Silly Girl, You Want to Race a Boy?
Haifaa al-Mansour’s ‘Wadjda’: A Saudi Girl’s Discoveries
by A. O. Scott, New York Times
You can tell that Wadjda is a rebel by looking at her feet. The other students at her all-girls madrassa in Saudi Arabia accessorize their long, shapeless gray dresses with black Mary Janes and frilly socks, but Wadjda, a lanky 10-year-old with big eyes and an easy smile, favors black Converse high-tops, a small gesture of spirited individuality in a world that seems organized to suppress any such expression.
She also is determined to have her own bicycle, something that, while not quite forbidden, is nonetheless strongly discouraged in Saudi society. At the edge of adolescence, Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is discovering the severe limitations placed on women in the name of custom, Islam and family honor. That discovery — and the tricky mixture of resistance and accommodation it provokes in this smart, stubborn girl — is the subject of Haifaa al-Mansour’s sharply observed, deceptively gentle film, reportedly the first feature ever directed by a Saudi woman.
“Wadjda” is circumspect about putting forth any overt criticisms of mosque or state. Instead, the movie presents the facts of its heroine’s life — and also, more obliquely, the lives of her mother, classmates and teachers — with calm authority and devastating effectiveness.
Wadjda’s mother (Reem Abdullah) has a job, but she can’t control the money she earns or drive herself to work. And she worries that since she has not borne him a son, her husband will take a second wife. Wadjda, who adores her father, is dismayed to discover that his branch of the family tree is devoid of leaves because only boys are counted in that way.
Older girls at school are punished for possessing magazines or makeup, and one is expelled for sneaking out to meet a boy. Wadjda still lives in a protected, relatively free zone of childhood and is unprepared for life as a second-class citizen. Her best friend is a boy — she wants a bike so she can beat him in a race — and it is heartbreaking to contemplate that their easy companionship must soon come to an end.
There is other heartbreak hovering over Ms. Mansour’s decorous, deliberate scenes. The difficulties facing Saudi women are hinted at rather than explored in depth, as are their strategies of adaptation, self-protection and subtle subversion. But because of Wadjda herself, the film is more buoyant than grim.
Immune to self-pity, she devises a plan to blend rebellion and obedience. When the headmistress announces a Koran-reciting contest with a cash prize, Wadjda sees a chance to acquire the bicycle of her dreams while at the same time overcoming her reputation as a troublemaker. This is a shrewd strategy, but also a bit of magical thinking. The rules don’t bend so easily, and Wadjda, clever as she is, has not quite grasped the extent to which they are rigged against her.
With impressive agility, “Wadjda” finds room to maneuver between harsh realism and a more hopeful kind of storytelling. There is warmth as well as austerity in Wadjda’s world, kindness as well as cruelty, and the possibility, modestly sketched and ardently desired, of change.
Written and directed by Haifaa al-Mansour; director of photography, Lutz Reitemeier; edited by Andreas Wodraschke; music by Max Richter; production design by Thomas Molt; costumes by Peter Pohl; produced by Razor Film, Roman Paul and Gerhard Meixner; released by Sony Pictures Classics. In Arabic, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 37 minutes.
WITH: Reem Abdullah (Mother), Waad Mohammed (Wadjda), Abdullrahman al-Gohani (Abdullah), Ahd (Hussa) and Sultan al-Assaf (Father).