Films like Wadjda do not come around very often. Haifaa al-Mansour’s debut feature is not only the first shot entirely in Saudi Arabia by a woman director, but also the first feature film ever shot entirely in Saudi Arabia. On the one hand, this means its place in history is secured no matter what. Yet al-Mansour’s work didn’t suddenly appear out of nowhere in the Arabian Desert. An almost superhuman dedication was necessary to make this film, both due to the nation’s lack of cinematic infrastructure and the logistical problems caused by the obstacles to mobility for Saudi women.
More than that, however, Wadjda simply does not feel as if it popped out of the sand. al-Mansour’s work rests on shoulders of greatness, building from a century of international cinema. That’s a loaded point, obviously, but it’s impossible to watch Wadjda without thinking of everything from Italian Neorealism to Jafar Panahi’s films around the role of women in contemporary Iran. This combination of classic styles and a surge forward into a totally new national landscape is what keeps al-Mansour’s film exhilarating from beginning to end.
It opens in a classroom at an all-girls school, where eleven-year-old Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is barely participating in a sing-a-long. Standing out amid a group of identically uniformed girls with her Chuck Taylor sneakers, we know from the beginning that this charismatic child has a spirit of her own. Later, once school is over, she spends time with her friend Abdullah. Not only is she not ashamed to be seen in public with a boy who is not her relative, but her ultimate ambition is to buy her own bicycle and race him down the street. Where will she get the money for such an extravagant purchase? Her plan is to win the Koran competition at school, memorizing and chanting passages from the holy book.
The overtones of the bicycle are obviously Neorealist, perhaps the easiest of all cinematic references. Yet beyond Bicycle Thieves, Wadjda has elements of Rome, Open City in its breaking open of Riyadh to cinema. Its empty lots and crowded streets evoke Roberto Rossellini’s eye, even if the Saudi capital has little otherwise in common with Rome in 1945 or Germany Year Zero’s Berlin. Wadjda herself is much more irreverent than any of Neorealism’s innocent, wide-eyed symbols of Italian misfortune. She defiantly refuses to understand why anyone would frown upon her biking alone through the streets of Riyadh. The school principal, however, has something in common with the scholarly characters of the 1940s as well as some more recent cinematic women of authority.
Ms. Hussa (Ahd Kamel) is a stickler for seemingly everything, and in Saudi Arabia there are an awful lot of customs for women to be particular about. At one point all of the girls rush inside from the school courtyard because there are men working on the roof next door who could look down and see them. Wadjda thinks it’s silly, and stays behind.
The conflict between rebellious student and stern teacher is an old one, but Wadjda’s variation is not without nuance. Ms. Hussa is more reminiscent of the mother in Dee Rees’s Pariah, clearly well-meaning but entirely misguided. She cannot abide Wadjda’s insistence on being difficult, vocal and rambunctious. Yet one of the crucial aspects of Wadjda’s character is that we don’t get any sort of schematic explanation for her independence. It shouldn’t be explained away, because it shouldn’t be a problem.
The girl’s mother, played by Reem Abdullah, is more understanding. She’s in a difficult situation herself, working a job that requires commuting three hours in either direction. Her husband is also not around very often, living mostly at home with his parents. The principle narrative conflict there is that she can have no more children after Wadjda’s difficult birth, and he may be in pursuit of a second wife. She and Wadjda are mostly on their own, but the addition of a second family to the equation would make things even more difficult.
These are women with complicated lives, made further difficult by the social barriers they face in Saudi society. Yet this film is not a wrathful cry against injustice. Its tone is softer than that of Panahi’s The Circle or Offside, which sought to boldly expose the structural injustice in Iranian society. Wadjda could have gone in that direction, but al-Mansour instead chose to focus more on the women themselves than the rules hemming them in. There are barely any men in this movie and the most significant is Abdullah, a child whose acceptance of Wadjda’s fiery personality is a hopeful gesture to a future generation. There’s humor in this film, and an awful lot of heart. For Saudi society, with this first feature film, perhaps the best way to begin the conversation about women is with warm, smart, empathetic storytelling.
The Upside: Beautiful script; impressive debut performance from child actor Waad Mohammed; a living piece of history
The Downside: Some plot points a little confusing to audiences not familiar with Saudi customs, certain plot points aren’t initially obvious
On the Side: Wadjda was produced by the same German company that produced Waltz with Bashir and Paradise Now, both of which were Oscar nominees. However, Wadjda may have trouble finding a nation to submit it.