Wadjda (Haifaa Al-Mansour - Saudi Arabia/Germany) 98 minutes
The plight of the women of Saudi Arabia looks to be hopeless, matched only by the hopelessness of those of us in the West concerned on their behalf. The tyrannical misogyny of the Saudi kingdom is the ne plus ultra in international jurisprudence; of that, few people, western, Arab or Muslim would be in doubt. That said, it is rare that we hear the opinion of Saudi women on these matters. It is even rarer that we hear — or see — the opinion of Saudi cinema on the matter, mainly because until now there has been no such thing.
Haifaa Al-Mansour’s film Wadjda is billed as the first ever Saudi film. That may or may not be entirely true but it’s a reasonable claim coming from a country that has outlawed actual picture houses, obviously to protect good Muslims from the social ravages of Stephen Daldry films, the sound of jaws mashing popcorn and people yapping like they were in church. Wadjda might look suspiciously slick for a country without cinema (and, pace Truffaut, we’re way beyond Britain here), but the country has a thriving soap-opera culture, which has provided ample competent acting talent for Al-Mansour’s debut feature.
And a very good debut it is, all the better because it ties in quite subtly with one of the major Saudi human-rights protests of recent years: the right of women to drive. In this case it is the effort of the titular 10-year-old Wadjda to buy a bicycle that she sees get delivered one day to a neighbourhood shop. The shopkeeper laughs off her request to put it aside for her, and her male friend Abdullah advises her she’s living in cloud-cuckoo land to even think about trying to get herself a bike. Wadjda though is undeterred; she is, at best, an indifferent Koran student but still enters a Koranic recitation competition to pad her savings sufficiently to get that bike.
It all sounds very hackneyed, but cliches don’t really come into play in the virgin territory of Saudi cinema, especially not when it is a film that chafes so much at the social restrictions of the kingdom. Waad Abdullah is a revelation as Wadjda, who cops, at a very young age, that the patriarchal system that educates her is bullshit. She is ingenuous and savvy at the same time, as many children her age are before adolescence forces a temporary relearning of childhood innocence upon them. She laughs sardonically at her mother’s quip that, having been asked by her teacher to wear an abaya, she’ll soon be married. It’s not such a far-fetched idea though, as demonstrated by a scene where one of Wadjda’s classmates returns to school one Monday morning a married woman, with photos to prove it.
Wadjda’s mother (Reem Abdullah) appears at first, to Western eyes, like any single mom but her husband still lives nearby and makes little effort to get in touch and is on the look-out for a second wife. The mother, as much as Wadjda herself, is a heroic presence in the film — a brave, loving woman who hangs on as best she can to maintain her dignity in the face of the horrendous social system that knows what is best for her. Her despair is counterpointed to Wadjda’s hopefulness — one embodied by an infectious wit but sure to be, in its turn, soon crushed.
Wadjda is a very good film that deserves plaudits well beyond the cursory ones that might be bestowed on a first Saudi film. It won’t do much to change your average Westerner’s perception of the country — Al-Mansour shows us a country where ten-year-old girls are sexually harassed in the street and married off at the earliest possible opportunity — but at least they get to see the humans underneath the veil, so to speak. And what of its potential audience in Saudi Arabia? I was surprised the filming was approved, to be honest, and whatever distribution networks open to Wadjda will undoubtedly be closed off. That ought not be a problem though; as a Malaysian filmmaker, whose films are regularly banned by his government, told me a couple of years back, censorship is ‘so 20th century’. I am sure pirate copies of Wadjda are already doing the rounds in Saudi Arabian towns and cities, and they probably see something they recognise too well. Here’s to another film by Haifaa Al-Mansour.