Director Haifaa Al-Mansour’s feature film Wadjda has garnered considerable international recognition, the pinnacle of which was the CinemAvvenire award at the Venice Film Festival and a BAFTA nomination for Best Film Not in the English Language.
This came as no surprise, because not only does the film tackle a heavy topic -- the oppression of women in Saudi Arabia -- with grace and cinematic finesse; it is also the first film to be shot entirely in the kingdom and to be directed by a Saudi woman.
In the film’s opening scene, a group of schoolgirls are chanting a religious verse in class. In their drab grey dresses and black leather shoes, they look the same, until we see a pair of basketball sneakers with purple laces peep from beneath the hem of one dress, establishing the film’s premise: Wadjda, the title character, is not like everyone else. In her own small way and in a place that, as we keep discovering, worships conformity, she is a rebel.
Testament to that is Wadjda’s obsession with buying a bicycle. In Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive, and those who challenge the rule are more often than not imprisoned. Bicycles, it seems, are even a bigger threat, as Wadjda’s mother explains in one scene, rejecting her daughter’s suggestion. No, she cannot ride a bike, for she might have an accident, losing her virginity and with it any chance of getting married and having children.
Wadjda, however, is more concerned with racing and beating her friend and neighbour Abdullah, and she cannot do that without a bike. And so we accompany the feisty girl with the unruly black hair on her endearing quest to save up the 800 riyals she needs to buy herself a bicycle like Abdullah’s.
That a 10-year-old girl is forbidden to ride a bike is entirely unjust; that she decides to independently buy one nonetheless is the ultimate act of defiance.
This simple storyline on its own sufficed to make the film honestly and creatively expressive of the plight of women in countries like Saudi Arabia, away from all the usual clichés. Yet Al-Mansour, who also wrote the film, unnecessarily adds some of those too. The threat of polygamy is always hovering in Wadjda's house; her mother fears that Wadjda’s father will take another wife. Child marriage is also featured, when one of Wadjda's classmates brings her wedding photographs to school. The stern headmistress accuses two pupils of lesbianism when they are caught alone in the schoolyard, and a reference is even made to the 70 gorgeous virgins suicide bombers are promised to meet in paradise when they complete their mission.
These aspects of women’s lives are destructive and do exist in Saudi and elsewhere, but in the film, they feel out of place, as if they have been inserted in arbitrarily.
As a result of cramming every sign of discrimination against women into one screenplay, or at least attempting to do so, the film seems preoccupied with sending a message, at the expense of the flow and richness of the storytelling. Are viewers to believe that women living ordinary lives in Riyadh deal almost exclusively with problems arising from the country’s sexist attitudes, and never have to grapple with more mundane worries?
Hany Abu-Assad, the Palestinian director who made Omar, another internationally-acclaimed Arab film, said he intended to base his story on timeless themes like love and friendship, rather than the occupation, so viewers everywhere could relate, even though the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is integral to the plot. This universal quality, perhaps, is what Wadjda sometimes lacks. The cause that Wadjda addresses is more than valid, but supporting it with a focus on normal human interaction would give the message an even more powerful resonance. Glimpses of that can be found in the film, albeit sporadically, in Wadjda’s free, uncomplicated relationship with Abdullah, and in certain scenes with her mother.
Although Al-Mansour was applauded for her film by the Saudi government, during shooting in Riyadh she often had to direct scenes while hiding inside a van. Similarly, Wadjda is praised for her excellent recital of verses from the Qur’an, yet is constantly lectured that having her voice heard is a sin. Her father tells her he is proud of her, but won’t tolerate her name on the all-male family tree. The look on Wadjda’s face after each rebuff speaks volumes, further demonstrating why Waad Mohammed, who gives a charming debut performance, is one of the film’s indisputable merits. However, this is where the smooth naturalness of Wadjda’s exchanges with Abdullah and her mother play a vital, balancing role: amid the suffocating dullness of the life she leads, stolen moments on the spacious rooftop where Abdullah teaches her how to ride his bike, or in the sunlit kitchen where she and her mother break into joyous song while preparing a meal, are much-needed breaths of fresh air.
Wadjda has been criticised by some for its lack of emphasis on the role of the state in how women are viewed and treated in Saudi Arabia. The religious police, the body responsible for enforcing appropriate moral conduct in the country, are mentioned only once during a casual gossip session over the phone. It is made to seem as if the only obstacles standing between Wadjda and her dream of riding a bike are disapproving members of society and her own lack of funds.
No mention is made of the trouble she will most probably encounter after she buys the bike and rides it through the streets of the city, although it is almost certain that she will be stopped and reprimanded.
Al-Mansour has been accused of purposely omitting any criticism of the state in order to facilitate the process of making the film. And with the Saudi government supporting Wadjda and submitting it to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as Saudi Arabia’s official entry in the race for a Best Foreign Language Film nomination, the director has also been blamed for aiding the state in its false promotion of itself as supportive of art and of women’s rights.
Others, however, see Al-Mansour’s cautious choice as a necessary compromise that had to be made in order for the film to see the light; that surrendering to some restrictions is eventually better than there being no Wadjda at all. That idea is echoed in the film, too. When ordered by the headmistress to get rid of her sneakers in favour of plain black shoes, Wadjda finds a way around the system - she colours in the white parts of the shoes in black pen, altering them instead of giving them up entirely.
While watching Wadjda, it’s hard not to think of classics where bicycles are at the centre of the story too, particularly Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 masterpiece Bicycle Thieves. Although post-war Rome and modern-day Riyadh are two entirely different worlds, in both films the bicycle represents a means through which the protagonist struggles to break free: Antonio seeks a way out of poverty, and only when he owns a bicycle will he be able to get a job and earn a living, while to Wadjda, the bicycle is the only chance at some measure of equality, at reaffirming her self-worth as an individual. Wadjda’s ending, however, drifts far from De Sica’s bleak neo-realism: it is happy, touching and infectiously liberating.
Wadjda will be screened at the Goethe Institute in Cairo on Saturday 8 March and at the French Institute on Sunday 9 March as part of the Goethe Film Week. It is also set to be the first film to play in Zawya’s programme in downtown Cairo’s Cinema Odeon, which opens on Wednesday 12 March.
Saturday 8 March at 8pm
Goethe Institute, 5 Al-Bustan Street, Downtown Cairo
Sunday 9 March at 8pm
1 Madraset Al-Hoqouq Al-Ferensiya Street, off of Qasr Al-Eini Street, Mounira, Cairo
Wednesday12 March at 9pm
(playing for at least one week afterwards)
Zawya, Cinema Odeon
Abdel Al-Hamid Said Street, off Talaat Harb Street, Cairo