In “From the Vault,” Daily Arts takes a new look at old films.
It’s your 18th birthday. Your parents generously hand you the jingling keys to a 2006 Subaru. This is the most momentous moment of your adolescent life thus far. You are a woman.
Unfortunately, for women in Saudi Arabia, this rite of passage has never been a reality due to strict laws that divide genders in the country — creating two very separate spheres of life. On Sept. 26, 2017, however, those harsh lines began to blur when Saudi Arabia’s King Salman issued a decree that now allows women to drive for the first time in the nation.
In 2012, the first Saudi Arabian female director, Haifaa al-Mansour (“Mary Shelley”), directed “Wadjda” and instilled in her titular protagonist (Waad Mohammed) a desire that Saudi Arabian women alike shared: to drive. No, not drive a car, because al-Mansour understood that this was not a possibility, but rather drive something else: a bike. Al-Mansour imbued her story with the sentiment that these women wanted to be able to drive, or to take control, of the even smallest parts of their lives without a male voice dictating how they could transport themselves. This notion of female driving is not new; in Paula Vogel’s 1997 play, “How I Learned to Drive,” the notion of driving a car means much more than physically steering, but rather assuming agency over one’s goals, desires and maturation.
When Wadjda puts her mind to something, she gets it. She sticks out as funky and unconventional — her coarse, espresso-rich, mane-like hair is always unruly (she has better things to do than sit in front of a mirror for hours and straighten her locks until they become burnt ends like her mother’s), and her ear lobes are lined with sparkly studs. So when Wadjda decides that she will win her school’s Koran contest to win money to pay for a bike — for her first ever opportunity at freedom — she really does it.
“Wadjda” opens up with Wadjda and her fellow schoolgirls singing verses from the Koran, as the camera traces their Mary Jane loafers in a tight close up until Wadjda’s scuffed, gothic Chuck Taylors with violet laces stand out from the rest. She is no ordinary girl. The next scene shows Wadjda counting up her riyals in hustler fashion, as she listens to Grouplove’s 2011 bubbly pop rock song “Tongue Tied.” Al-Mansour not-so-subtly depicts that Wadjda’s desires stretch way farther than the Arabian Peninsula, especially those desires which make her want to be seen as an equal to the opposite sex.
Wadjda doesn’t ask for much; she spends most of her time alone. She doesn’t expect her totalitarian headmaster, Ms. Hussa, to give her any respect. When Wadjda wins the Koran contest and Ms. Hussa gives the funds instead to Palestine and not to Wadjda, she is disappointed but from surprised. She doesn’t ask her negligent father to give her attention as he goes between his two families. She doesn’t think of her male peers as anything more than an immature. When Wadjda’s mother tells her that her father likes her hair long and straight as a way to attempt to seem attractive to him and save their relationship, Wadjda rolls her eyes, telling the audience that even at a young age, she recognizes that changing oneself to appeal to men is foolish.
“Wadjda” closes with bittersweet fireworks, as Wadjda and her mother embrace. They watch her father’s marriage ceremony from their stucco balcony, as if, finally, they are both in sync that pleasing a man is an impossible battle and that female companionship is steady. It is a tough pill to swallow, but Wadjda persists nonetheless, and the audience senses that in this lonesome moment, she is not alone. It is as if Wadjda helped initiate the battle for equality and being the driver of one’s own life, so now Saudi Arabian girls like her can ride their bikes (and cars) off to freedom into the burning Middle-Eastern sun.