Haifaa al-Mansour’s Wadjda is certainly a landmark look at a restrictive society, but in giving us the story of a 10-year-old Saudi Arabian girl’s quest for a bike we get a movie that speaks, to quote the director, “of universal themes of hope and perseverance” to which people of all countries and cultures can relate.
Al-Mansour is her country’s first female film director, and given the cultural and religious dictates regarding women there getting Wadjda made with her local cast and Saudi-German crew was quite an accomplishment. “Every step was difficult and it was quite an adventure,” she explains in a press kit interview about what’s billed as the first full-length feature shot entirely inside the Middle Eastern kingdom. “I occasionally had to run and hide in the production van in some of the more conservative areas where people would have disapproved of a woman director mixing professionally with all the men on set. Sometimes I tried to direct via walkie-talkie from the van, but I always got frustrated and came out to do it in person.”
She is obviously very much like the strong-willed Riyadh resident at the center of Wadjda (played by the then-12-year-old Waad Mohammed in an impressive movie acting debut): Our first glimpse of her is at school, where she’s the only girl wearing Chuck Taylor high-top Converse sneakers. She is constantly running afoul of the doctrinaire school principal Ms. Hussa (Ahd) – “Why are you laughing? You forget that women’s voices shouldn’t be heard by men outside. How often must I repeat this? A woman’s voice is her nakedness,” she says in scolding Wadjda early in the film. The youngster further flouts convention by regularly playing with a neighborhood boy named Abdullah (Abdullrahman al-Gohani).
Wadjda becomes to determine to buy a bike valued at 800 riyals (about $213 at current exchange rates) and beat her playmate in a race, but how to get the money? A possible though difficult solution suggests itself when a Koran knowledge-and-recitation competition at her school offers 1,000 riyals to the winner. At the same time, her mother (Reem Abdullah) is trying to thwart the plans her father (Sultan al-Assaf) has for taking a second wife. How both seek to assert themselves within their country’s rigid rules proves both heart-breaking and hopeful.
It may seem easy for us to judge those who would subjugate women through religious and cultural traditions, but in a country where women still only earn 77 cents for every dollar a man makes it’s fair to look at Wadjda and see ourselves writ large and small as well. There are fine performances and the 97-minute well-paced story is adroitly lensed by Lutz Reitemeier, but the film ultimately works because al-Mansour (who previously directed a documentary called Women Without Shadows) has achieved her goals of making this tale’s themes universally resonant while giving the intellectual debate about woman’s place and possibilities in Saudi society a face. It’s not docudrama but human drama – spiked with believable bits of humor – that makes Wadjda an edifying and inspiring experience.
Wadjda (www.sonyclassics.com/wadjda) opens today (Nov. 1) in Nashville exclusively at the Belcourt Theatre (2102 Belcourt Ave.). Rated PG for thematic elements, brief mild language and smoking; In Arabic with English subtitles, 97 min. Written and directed by Haifaa al-Mansour. Starring Waad Mohammed, Reem Abdullah, Abdullrahman al-Gohani, Ahd, Sultan al-Assaf, Ibrahim Almozael, Mohammed Zahir and Sara Aljaber. Jennifer Fay, associate professor of Film Studies and English and director of the film studies program at Vanderbilt University, will lead a discussion of the film following the 7 p.m. screening today. Click here for more info and to buy tickets.
*Photos by Tobias Kownatzki © Razor Film courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.