WADJDA Movie Review – GFF 2013
Saudi Arabia is a country where cinemas have been banned since the 1980s and where women are not entitled to many of the freedoms given to their male counterparts. They are not permitted to drive, for instance, and until recently were unable to vote. Therefore, Haifaa Al-Mansour’s debut film Wadjda is a groundbreaking cinematic achievement. It’s the first to be produced and filmed in Saudi Arabia; it’s directed by a woman; but most impressive of all, it serves as a critique of the country’s aforementioned female oppression.
The film tells the story of Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), a teenager growing up with her mother (Reem Abdullah) amid this gender inequality. Wadjda is a modern, Westernised girl. At home, she listens to tapes of pop bands and dresses in designer shoes and printed shirts. But in school, she’s scolded for not conforming to what is expected of her as a Saudi woman; be it not covering her face or simply laughing in front of a man. Her best friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), however, does not face the same restrictions as she. As a boy, he’s free to work and play as he pleases. Much to Wadjda’s envy, furthermore, he owns a bicycle – a toy she is told is not allowed for girls.
Determined to simply be able to play with her best friend, Wadjda resolves to save as much money as she can, go behind her parents’ backs and purchase a bike from a local store, running errands for her community in exchange for cash. But despite her best efforts, Wadjda’s financial goal is still far out of sight – that is until her school announces a Quran recital contest with prize money for the winner.
One might expect the first film released from Saudi Arabia, directed by a woman no less, to provide a harsh and unflinching look at the harrowing effects of gender oppression. Remarkably, however, Wadjda is not that kind of movie. There are no angry tirades against religion or the country’s government. Instead, Haifaa Al-Mansour’s portrayal of contemporary Saudi Arabia is modestly apolitical, simply presenting the small ways everyday lives are affected in a society that doesn’t permit equality between the sexes.
Seen through the eyes of our adolescent heroine, it tackles these themes not with a tough, riling and enraging tone but, in contrast, one that’s breezy and packed with humour. It’s a film that clearly encourages feminism, capturing the ways Wadjda, her family and her classmates’s lives are affected by their nation’s sexism, but Wadjda does this through the prism of a bittersweet coming-of-age story. In taking to the streets to raise money for her bike, she opens her eyes to the injustices around her and, in her own small, childlike way, stands up against these deep-rooted beliefs.
It’s this optimism in Haifaa Al-Mansour’s storytelling that makes Wadjda masterful. As it comes to an end, you’re not left angered over the ways one gender is believed to be inferior to the other, but instead uplifted by the possibility that things will change with a new generation of women similar to Wadjda. Waad Mohammed’s performance complements this to perfection. It’s commanding, brave and courageous.
Quietly pushing boundaries, Wadjda is not just a milestone in world cinema but also a minor masterpiece. It’s unlikely you’ll find a more important film in 2013 than this.