Haifaa Al-Mansour, the first-ever female Saudi Arabian film director, has brought another “first” to our screens: “Wadjda”, a movie shot exclusively on Saudi Arabian soil, featuring the everyday life of Saudis. Little Wadjda, the 10-year-old heroine of the story, is set to defy her mother, school’s headmistress, classmates and society, but Wadjda is not interested in anything other than getting a bike to race her friend Abdallah. As she works hard to raise the money to achieve her dreams by selling handmade bracelets, bargaining and even joining the school’s Quran competition despite being a complete beginner in Quran recitation and interpretation, Wadjda realizes that it is not money that stands in the way of her dream, but rather her lack of freedom and autonomy as a woman in Saudi society.
The typical Western portrayal of Arabs and Muslims in movies features images of oil sheiks, deserts and oppressed, faceless figures covered in black. Al-Mansour’s “Wadjda” defies these presentations and instead explores a different narrative, the real narrative, by putting an unexpected twist in her portrayal. The women in this movie are not terrorists, they are not nameless shadows and do not need to be saved by Western men. They are complex characters who play an active role in shaping their own lives and the lives of the women around them. They are humans capable of feeling love and compassion but who are also with faults and contradictions.
In addition to a well-rounded portrayal of women, the movie also presents Saudi society with a dual narrative. For example, when Leila, a friend of Wadjda’s mother, starts working in a hospital, she immediately removes her veil because it is not enforced in this professional setting. But Wadjda’s mother’s refusal to give up her veil for the job shows she is not comfortable, despite having an opportunity to do otherwise. This reveals the mandates’ nuances regarding women’s covering that exist in society. Whether societal pressures or other expectations influence each of the women, the fact remains that there are separate spaces within Saudi society, including private and professional settings, where the law is more lenient or accepting of different forms of the veil.
Another instance in which Al-Mansour shows a dual narrative is when Wadjda begins rehearsing for the Quran competition. The chosen verses the girls recite on screen all talk about respecting authority and fearing the punishment that God will inflict on anyone who pretends to have genuine faith in Islam. Except Wadjda is not there to genuinely learn about her religion through the Quran and is more interested in the prize money. Yet, we can also see that Wadjda is not entirely insincere regarding her faith. In fact, she bonds with her mother over Quran practice and, throughout the movie, they often pray together. The verses the girls recite in the movie are instead used in these scenes to criticize the government, which uses Islam in bad faith to advance its agenda and justify the deliberate oppression of a group of people and violence in the name of Islam.
The juxtaposition of different aspects of Saudi societal expectations and the women’s role within that society is perhaps the most controversial and confusing aspect of the movie. Al-Mansour refuses to show just one side of the story and instead shows different views from religious extremism to Wadjda, who can barely read Quranic Arabic. The director criticizes the nuances in Saudi society’s veil mandate by showing women who must cover their faces from men but can ride alone in taxis and bargain with salesmen. She explores this dual narrative on an individual level where on the one hand, the construction worker is catcalling Wadjda, and on the other, another older man is helping her buy a bike. She also shows how Wadjda’s mother does everything to please her husband while he shames her for not giving him a son, but Abdullah, Wadjda’s friend, encourages her and teaches her to ride his bike. This individual dual narrative is also portrayed across families, one of which marries off their 10-year-old girl, contrasting it with Wadjda’s mother, who reassures her that she would never marry her off. Al-Mansour continues to avoid presenting only one perspective and instead shows both the sand and run-down streets as well as the tall malls and modern hospitals. Multiple “stories” are present, and all are true; one single story, one single perspective, is never complete or enough to understand a complex society.
The Islamic world portrayed in this movie is nothing I have seen before. The film both praised and criticized the nuances within Saudi society, often in the same shot. Women are no longer passively having laws, religion or expectations placed upon them but are the ones enforcing them. They are taking on roles traditionally assumed to be reserved to men. Seeing girls like Wadjda restrained at an early age and prohibited from riding a bike, or otherwise exercising freedom, someone unfamiliar with the different interpretations of Islam in Arab countries might believe that it must be because of Islam — and fail to see the girl’s bike sitting at the shop, waiting for Wadjda to buy it. Why would girls’ bikes be sold in Saudi shops if it was illegal or against Islamic mandates for girls to ride them? Al-Mansour makes it clear that it is society’s values and its people’s will that create such restrictions.
I would recommend this film to anyone seeking more information on this part of the Arab world because it does not tell viewers what to think; it gives them the information they need to formulate their own opinions. Though it never goes into great detail on the aforementioned issues, and it can feel like it is jumping from scene to scene without real context, “Wadjda” is still a revealing and educational experience that makes the viewers feel at ease without fear of being judged for having the “wrong” opinion. As for the production itself, it was great to see a movie so well done. I was happy to see accurate subtitles that did not deduct from the characters’ dialogues and glad that the producer did not overuse soundtracks, instead letting the raw emotions of the characters set the tone. So, if you are up for an emotional rollercoaster, contradictions and, most importantly, have the willingness to open your mind and heart to a new world, “Wadjda” will not disappoint.
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