It is not every day that you encounter a feature film from Saudi Arabia, nor one that is as politically-minded and well-crafted as “Wadjda.” Saudi Arabia – a country with no public movie theatres – has never produced a film entirely shot there, let alone by a woman. For these reasons and a whole host of others, “Wadjda” is an important landmark in world cinema.
Director Haifa Al-Mansoor’s film tells a simple story, resembling the tales of Iranian filmmakers and their outwardly simple yet rich and metaphoric narratives. In “Wadjda” the title character is a ten year old girl (played by first timer Waad Mohammed), who dreams of buying a green bicycle so she can race her friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani) through the streets of Riyadh. Her parents are both hesitant to give her the money and anyway, they are caught up in their own marital drama: Wadjda’s father is trying to resist his mother’s pressures to take a second wife in order to produce a male heir. Wadjda decides to earn the money for the bike herself by entering a school Koran recitation competition.
The story is straightforward but the gender politics and relationships informing it are not. Part of Wadjda’s mother’s hesistation has a lot to do with her belief that the bicycle will compromise her daughter’s virginity. Wadjda, an adventurous and outspoken girl, is also repeatedly reprimanded for not knowing how to ‘behave’ as a girl should. Interestingly, these reprimands do not come from the men in the film but from the other female characters. In a society where the interaction between men and women so heavily censored, this makes sense. Women, like Wadjda’s teacher, have internalized the various messages and systems of control. The teacher, Ms. Hussa (played by American-Arab actress Ahd), tells the girls in the school on various occasions to stay out of the sight of men and to keep their voices down because a woman’s voice “is her nakedness.” You are not to be seen or heard by anyone but the male members of your family.
The film also touches on the difficult issue of South Asian migrant workers in the Middle East. Here is where the politics of the film get a bit murky. The film is both sympathetic and unkind to the main migrant character, the driver Iqbal, who is short-tempered, always late and needs a firm hand to perform his job well. At the same time, we see Wadjda and Abdullah speaking to Iqbal with disrespect, implying that his mis-treatment permeates the generations in Saudi Arabia. In another scene, we hear a South Asian construction worker cat-calling little Wadjda. Only the intervention of a Saudi stops the construction worker from his verbal harassment. Given the well-documented overall dire situation of migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, this first depiction in a Saudi feature film is a problematic one as it turns the issue around on them – they are the problem and not Saudi Arabian society or the bad working conditions.
Despite the fact that the film has its flaws (including some overly dramatic acting), its charms are plenty. Al-Mansoor, like a lot of Iranian cinema, uses metaphors to add layers to the story. The bicycle in the film symbolizes freedom for Wadjda and the film suggests that even though various people and institutions try to withhold this freedom from her, in the end, determination succeeds and change is inevitable. Given its success on the international film fest circuit, we can hope to see more stories from a country that has so far created very few widely available self-images on celluloid.