A 10 year-old girl living in Saudi Arabia abides by her strict culture yet never stops observing and questions the more unfair notions of a society that operate in the favour of men. All she wants however, is a bike, but she’s told that it’s not appropriate for a young girl’s virtue. She just wants to be an individual with the freedom to experience pure joy, much like any child does. Does it resonate? Do we come to care about a girl and her bike in the first place? My review of Wadjda after the jump.
Wadjda is a 10 year-old girl living in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. Her mother serves her husband hand and foot, however this is not enough. His mother wants him to remarry another woman and have more children,..preferably sons. Wadjda is continuously reminded to keep herself covered and away from the sight and sound of men, particularly at school, with the impending threat of one day being married off, much like her friends have recently been. She is restricted, in every sense of the word, even her best friend, Abdullah, isn’t allowed to be seen with her in public unless she refers to her as his sister. Amidst it all, she is still exceptionally energetic, inquisitive, ambitious and entrepreneurial, and all she wants more in the world is a bike so she can race Abdullah and win. Only a few days after deciding this, an immaculate green push bike goes on sale, but costs more than she could ever afford. Of course, being as determined as Wadjda is, she won’t let that stop her and enters a competition at school which requires one to recite verses from the Quran perfectly. The prize? enough cash to buy the bike. Can she win? Will her home life be restored in any way?Will ever be able to live as free Wadjda as her spirit is?
Wadjda is the feature film début for writer/director Haifaa Al-Mansour and is the first feature film to be shot in Saudi Arabia. The fact that it was a female director to do so is the cause for controversy and celebration. Wadjda does something many films released as of late ignore, multiplex fodder and art house cinema alike; It utilises a female protagonist that has no interest or exposure to sex and does so to acknowledge a culture we’re exposed, to yet essentially know very little about. Films with a political agenda always have the aim to “raise questions” by showing you the flaws of a particular discourse. Wadjda is that anomaly of a film, it answers the questions it’s asking and gives an opinion to the perception we’re presented with. It’s the opinion of someone who is intelligent, fair, kind yet upset, frustrated and perplexed. Am I talking about the central character or the film’s director?
Films in the last ten years have gone backwards with their ideals and perceptions. This also includes art house films. The role of the female is to seduce, inform and or to support. But for them to breathe, exist and revolutionize is unheard of. Why? Since when? This isn’t the voice of a feminist, it’s one of a straight male who’s sick of seeing the same damn film day in and out and the cardinal element of each repeated formula is the sidelined female character. Because it’s easy? I’m still unable to answer despite continuously noticing it. Haifaa Al-Mansour inadvertently attempts the to answer such a question with her devised narrative in regards to films of now. She does so by asking the same questions of a culture, a culture women are raised in yet hidden. The questions aren’t simply mentioned, anyone at a dinner with friends can do so. It’s the attempted answer that resonates.
Everything from screenplay to direction to performances are of the highest calibre. The social context is the narrative yet a kind and inquisitive approach in the form of the protagonist (played to perfection by Waad Mohammed) elevates the commentary. Once again, like recent cinema and side lining female characters, it’s easy to have an innocent yet thin narrative with social commentary infused in the character’s dialogue, but to integrate the two so importance is placed on all fronts, it’s unheard of, it’s also refreshing and more importantly effective. Why do we care about a young girl wanting to buy a bike? The aggravating injustices of a culture presented before us give weight and meaning to such a simple tale.
You will care, you will think, you will understand. All that’s left now is to question why every other film you see struggles to make you do so, amongst other things. Aggression is easy, listening and perceiving with thoughtful consideration is something else.
By Chris Elena
Please note:This review was originally published on June 10 2013, as part of our Sydney Film Festival coverage.
Director: Haifaa Al-Mansour
Writer(s): Haifaa Al-Mansour
Starring: Waad Mohammed, Reem Abdullah, Abdulrahman Al Gohani
Runtime: 97 minutes
Release date: Australia: March 20 2014