Wadjda (2013): Written and directed by Haifaa al-Monsour. Starring: Waad Mohammed, Reem Abdullah, and Abdulrahman al-Guhani. Running Time: 98 Minutes
As I mull over Wadjda, I’m having a difficult time of it separating my thoughts on the film itself from my excitement over the importance of its mere existence; this is the first ever movie to be filmed entirely in Saudi Arabia AND to be helmed by a woman. It’s already been listed as a potential nominee for the Best Foreign Language Oscar at next year’s Academy Awards, and has been garnering solid acclaim at film festivals, currently holding a 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Yes, it’s a small, small step compared to the long list of oppressive crimes committed by the stifling climate of Saudi royalism, but even piecemeal progress is better than no progress. So the fact that Wadjda is a cultural milestone is hard to dispute. The question then is, does the film itself deserve such lavish praise, and is it good enough to meet the expectations that many people will have after just hearing about it? In my opinion, for the most part, yes, it absolutely does.
Wadjda is a young girl whose life is, in many ways, fairly typical- she goes to school, gets in trouble with the principal, both fights with and helps her mother, and teases a boy named Abdullah who lives nearby. Happy in her childhood, she is smart and sharp-tongued, but lacks a goal until the day Adbullah shows off his new bicycle to her, and her dream suddenly crystalizes before her- she, too, wants a bike so that she and Abdullah can race (in a bit of topical poignancy, Saudi Arabia only just changed its laws barring women from riding bikes).
Even though what she wants is no longer technically illegal, girls riding bikes still goes against the social and moral norms of both her mother and her school’s strict, no-nonsense principal; when she first voices her desire out loud, her mother claims that girls lose the ability to bear children when they ride bikes. Wadjda needs to find a way to overcome (or at least circumvent) said prejudices just as much as she has to overcome her dream bike’s exorbitant price tag. While saving money from her illicit cloth-bracelet business at school, she also dedicates herself to Qu’ranic studies so that she can win the 1000 Riyal prize money at the school competition. Here, she runs into more problems, as she’s never taken her studies seriously, and has never practiced singing the holy verses before.
It’s the little details that make Wadjda such a moving and enjoyable film to watch. A girl cutting against the grain trying to fulfill a simple dream in a society legendary for its repressive policies towards women is the kind of story many would simply play for big, broad, social commentary. Many writers or directors would portray Wadjda as a paragon of innocent virtue, taking a stand against the unbending ignorance of her elders. At least, that’s the movie a great many Western directors would have made. And perhaps it’s precisely because of the fact that this is not a Western movie that it never goes that route. It is a movie that notes, and never ignores, many of the aspects of Saudi society that outsiders are likely to find distasteful, but it never obsesses over them- for the characters, this is simply how life is.
However, when they do pop up, they are always handled with a mature understanding- as with every society, once you scratch below the stereotypical surface, you find that life there is just as nuanced, varied, complex, and subtle as it is anywhere else in the world. Wadjda and her mother are disappointed and hurt by the father’s constant absences and the threat of him leaving them for a new wife, but he’s never vilified by either them or the film; the last time we see him, he smiles at Wadjda and tells her how proud he is of her. The principal, a character commonly stuffed into caricature suits in movies involving children, is also much more three-dimensional than one might expect. She’s clearly very conservative, and threatens Wadjda with expulsion when her bracelet trade is uncovered, but she also willingly complements her when she sees how hard she studies for the competition (we also get a hint that she might not be so uptight privately as she is publicly).
The fact that Wadjda never plays itself up as something bigger than it is could be more of a weakness than a strength for plenty of people. Because it never harps on the various social conflicts and norms that the characters experience, there’s no over-arching statement made by either the movie itself or its individual characters about gender roles or women’s rights, and that may disappoint some. It’s a quiet movie that never goes for big emotions (although Wadjda and her mother do have some very sweet scenes together), and while nearly every aspect of the movie is well-made, that could somewhat mute the emotional impact it has on a number of viewers. The movie is in Arabic, but because there were no OV showings where I was I had to see it in German, and in that version, the dialogue strays into being too expositional at times. That could be a matter of some subtleties being lost in translation, but until I am able to see the movie in Arabic, I can’t say for sure. Sadly, that’s always a factor when reviewing movies in another language- unless you speak said language yourself, you can’t be 100% certain you aren’t missing bits here and there.
The glue that holds everything together though is the main character. Waad gives as good a performance as I’ve ever seen from a child actor, on par with Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit and the Khaki Scout gang from Moonrise Kingdom. She’s cheerful, energetic, and witty, but also petty, angry, sad, and disobedient, like any other child. Given the bevy of terrible acting and terrible writing that tends to perforate films with children as main characters, it’s always a relief to see one done right. It’s also one reason that the movie doesn’t need any big, emotional moments other than those connected to the main story. We are simply presented with images of several intertwined lives, in all their happiness, sadness, and complexity. Wadjda is a fun, funny, and occasionally very touching story of a girl trying to bring a small dream to fruition. If you have the chance to see this one in theaters, definitely check it out.