Tenderfoot

Film review: Wadjda

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Poster for the movie Wadjda

Reviewed by: Kate Prendergast

Edited by Matthew Norman and Danielle McGee

Film: Wadjda
Director:
Haifaa Al-Mansour
Running Time: 98 minutes
Year of release:
2012
Language:
Arabic (English subtitles)

While some Saudi patriarchs dream of eighty virgins, Wadjda dreams of eighty bikes. The likeable school-girl would very much like to trounce her male friend in a race, and get even with him for a minor quibble between them. Yet in a culture where even driving a car is forbidden for women, Wadjda’s hope of obtaining just one bike is not only remote, but condemned as a sin by the adults around her. It is simply not something girls in Riyadh do.

Rebel that she is, Wadjda doesn’t let any voice of grown-up authority put the brakes on her small quest for freedom and equality. Not her coolly tyrannical schoolmistress, who forbids the pupils from holding hands; not her oft-absent father, who seeks a second wife to bear him sons; and not her mother (Reem Abdullah), who struggles between aspirations of independence and the desperation to keep her wandering husband by her side—with the latter compelling single-minded submissiveness.

With heart-winning spunk that has her wearing purple-laced converse shoes and a t-shirt saying ‘I'm a Great Catch’ under her full-length abaya, Wadjda repeatedly defies the structures of a society which would have her conflate piety with shame, and self-respect with self-effacement.

Yet as no one is willing to co-invest in her ambitions, Wadjda signs up to a religious club. It’s a sly move. There’s a Koran reading competition coming up, you see— and the 1,000 riyals in prize money would more than cover the cost of the toy-store bike she’s pre-emptively claimed for her own. With a determination her teachers mistake for docile penitence, Wadjda applies herself to study like never before.

The film is in many ways ground-breaking. There are no cinemas in Saudi Arabia; they have been banned in the country for over thirty years. Wadjda is the first feature length film shot entirely in the country, and the first by a female director who, incidentally, received her higher education in Australia. Such is the scorn attached to the idea of a career-woman in Saudi, al-Mansour was forced to guide the film through its paces via walkie-talkie from the inside of a van. It is also the first performance for Waad Mohammed, who is no less than beautiful as Wadjda.

The story the film tells is humorous, poignant and simply-spun, and is all the more powerful for being so. It comports itself amidst its delights and sufferings through the emotional force of Wadjda’s small yet potent coming-of-age dramas, where a less gentle and optimistic direction may have engaged a grimly strident tone. Indeed, al-Mansour admitted the original screenplay was far bleaker than the one eventually filmed. ‘I decided I didn't want the film to carry a slogan and scream, but just to create a story where people can laugh and cry a little,’ she says.

The story the film tells is humorous, poignant and simply-spun, and is all the more powerful for being so. It comports itself amidst its delights and sufferings through the emotional force of Wadjda’s small yet potent coming-of-age dramas, where a less gentle and optimistic direction may have engaged a grimly strident tone. Indeed, al-Mansour admitted the original screenplay was far bleaker than the one eventually filmed. ‘I decided I didn't want the film to carry a slogan and scream, but just to create a story where people can laugh and cry a little,’ she says.

One only wishes that Saudi girls had the opportunity to watch this sublime piece of cinema too.

Wadjda is currently screening at Luna Leederville and Luna On SX.