If the story of the making of Wadjda — notably the first feature film entirely shot in Saudi Arabia, and one written and directed by a woman — somewhat overshadows the film itself, I don’t mean that to be a criticism, for the story is a remarkable one, and the film is perfectly enjoyable. In fact, I’d be surprised if anyone said they really hated Wadjda, for it has a sweet and earnest charm to it, even if it may not be the height of sophisticated filmmaking technique.
I feel as if there’s been a theme with my reviews this week of exploring unknown worlds, and of all those, Saudi Arabia must rank amongst the most exotic. I say “exotic” partly because of our assumptions about places which are so hidden from the Western gaze; in fact, what the film is at pains to put across is how quotidian reality is there. Outwardly the part of Riyadh we see looks like any Middle Eastern city, with wide concrete pavements and apartment blocks, schools and shops. The title character is a young girl (Waad Mohammed), growing up with her mother (played by Reem Abdullah) and going to school. Her dad occasionally passes through, but he and her mother have fallen out and there are suggestions throughout the film that he is going to get married to another woman.
It’s in the little details that the differences lie. The filmmakers thankfully avoid any speeches about inequities, preferring just to depict how things are. For example, with the relationship between Wadjda’s mother and father, the problem is that she hasn’t given birth to a son and can no longer have children; they are still married, and it’s his mother that is arranging a new wife for him. Meanwhile, Wadjda shows little signs of independence — wearing sneakers under her skirt, making bracelets to sell to her classmates, listening to cassettes of pirated music — that are frowned on by the school’s headmistress. Two other girls are shown hiding in a corner of the school yard, applying toenail polish or drawing fake tattoos on their legs with marker pens. It’s small stuff, none of it visible to outsiders and only caught through the watchfulness of the camera, but these actions all seem transgressive within the strict context of this society.
The most potent metaphor, however, is the the one concerning freedom and it’s the one the film starts and ends with: the women we see (and the film is mostly concerned with women) are not allowed access to transport without a chaperone. Wadjda’s mother must rely on the whims of her increasingly erratic driver Iqbal (paid for by her husband) to get to her distant job; she is given the opportunity to apply for a more local job, but fears society’s rules about exposing her face to the gaze of men. Meanwhile, Wadjda herself desperately covets a bike, but finds resistance from everyone she speaks to, for exactly the same reason. She finds resistance even though it leads her into a bit of self-improvement — she enters a Qur’anic learning competition at her school (presumably the Saudi equivalent of a spelling bee) in order to get the prize money which will allow her to buy the bike.
If these are all depressing signs of societal repression, the film takes a sunnier tack entirely, preferring to gently hint at the inequities in the hope of bringing about a softening of attitudes, which I can only hope has some effect in its country of origin — though given Saudi has no cinemas and no film industry (Wadjda received largely German funding), I have no idea to what extent this is possible. In fact, given these privations, it’s a wonder that the film exists. It’s not flashy filmmaking, at times distinctly televisual, but at its best it recalls the similar films about young protagonists which came out of Iran some decades ago — for example, Jafar Panahi’s Badkonake sefid (The White Balloon, 1995) or Samira Makhmalbaf’s Sib (The Apple, 1998).
The hints at women’s place in Saudi Arabian society are all there for people who want to read them, but Wadjda remains a sweet-natured and wholly optimistic film about a feisty young girl, whose individuality is surely not a threat to anyone and who has the tenacity to prevail. I only hope that this small first step can lead to further inroads, both in society and in Saudi cinema, but at the very least we are left with hope for a better future.
Director/Writer Haifaa al-Mansour هيفاء المنصور; Cinematographer Lutz Reitemeier; Starring Waad Mohammed وعد محمد, Reem Abdullah ريم عبدالله; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Fulham Road, London, Tuesday 23 July 2013.