Wadjda, by Haifaa al-Mansour, is supposedly the first feature length film ever shot in Saudi Arabia. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but Saudi Arabia currently has no move theaters. Haifaa al-Mansour was also subject to a number of draconian restrictions, including having to film from the back of a van, since, as a women, she was not allowed to be seen in public with her mostly male film crew. I think it’s safe to say there’s never been a “Saudi New Wave.” If you have any idea why, fill me in in the comments, since I’m fairly sure it’s not Islam. Iran, for example, has a rich cinematic tradition.
Wadjda, an 11-year-old school-girl, lives with her mother in lower-middle-class Riyadh. Her father, who seems like a nice enough guy, although we see very little of him, is quarreling with her mother. He’s disappointed he has a daughter and not a son, and intends to take a second wife. Every day Wadjda’s mother, played by the 27-year-old Reem Abdullah, puts on a veil, and waits for a commuter van driven by an Indian immigrant. Wadjda’s mother has a job, but women, in Saudi Arabia, aren’t allowed to drive. It makes no sense to me. I guess it’s supposed to keep them safe, but it seems to me that depending on a van driven by a strange man makes Wadjda’s mother less safe. In any event, she’s always feuding with her driver. He’s always early. He says she’s always late. He doesn’t turn on the air-conditioning. The average high temperature in Riyadh is 110 degrees in the Summer. The commute is long, tedious and demoralizing.
The 11-year-old Wadjda has more freedom than her mother. Girls below the age of puberty can go outside without a veil. Wadjda wears a simple headscarf. There are rules against mixing with boys in public but they’re not strictly enforced. Wadjda has a friend named Abdullah. It’s pretty much the kind of friendship you would expect between a 11-year-old boy and a 11-year-old girl. They tease each other. They play in the streets. He rides past her on his bike, and steals her lunch. The last is important. After she chases him down the street, losing her scarf, and fails to catch him, she decides that she wants her own bike. She sees just the one she wants. It’s not a Trek Madone. It’s a cheap, ugly green cruiser bike with crappy geometry and a big, puffy seat, the kind of bike you’d see at a Walmart, but to Wadjda, it’s freedom. It’s mobility.
It’s also 900 Riyals, about 250 dollars. Perhaps the best way to think of Wadjda would be as 400 Blows: Extreme Patriarchy, Female Edition. Wadjda is a rebel. More specifically, she’s a rebel who’s also a budding capitalist. She sells homemade bracelets and bootleg mix tapes of popular music. Her school is run by a severely Islamic young female principal. Among other things, patriarchy allows women to lord it over other women. The more rules, the more power you get by memorizing them. It’s also pretty easy to be a rebel. What are you rebelling against? It’s probably better to ask “what are you not rebelling against?” Wadjda’s schoolmates enthusiastically consume her black market bracelets. They paint their nails and give themselves tattoos with magic markers. They gossip about the principal sleeping around on her husband.
But Wadjda is not able to make those 900 Riyals by selling bracelets. She asks her mother, but her mother is not sympathetic. Girls don’t ride bikes. They’re boy’s toys. What’s more, riding a bike just might break her hymen and take her virginity. Wadjda finally hits on the idea of entering a competition for memorizing and reciting the Koran. The prize is 1000 Riyals, more than enough for the bike. She goes to a store and spends 80 Riyals on a kind of Rosetta Stone Learn the Koran program for her father’s Play Station 3. Her mother teaches her how to sing the verses. Her teachers at school thinks she’s reformed. Suddenly, she’s no longer Wadjda the rebel, but Wadjda the good girl. “You remind me of me when I was your age,” the principal says, flattering her to get her to rat out a few of the school’s bad girls.
Does Wadjda win the Koran competition and get the money for her bike? I won’t give any spoilers but let’s just say that after it’s all over I wanted to become a Zionist. If that sounds odd, go to Amazon and watch the movie. You’ll understand what I mean. Does it have a happy ending? Once again, I won’t give any spoilers. But it involves Wadjda’s relationship to her mother.
In the end, Wadjda draws most of its power from what it doesn’t mention. I have no idea how a Saudi would see Wadjda, but as an American, I noticed how everything seems 20 years out of date. Wadjda listens to cassettes, not an iPod She doesn’t have a cell phone. Even the soap dispensers in the public restrooms look like soap dispensers I haven’t seen since I was a teenager. What’s more, since Haifaa al-Mansour seems to want the film to play in Saudi Arabia, she tries very hard to use a light touch. She doesn’t come out and condemn Wahhabi Islam . Sometimes, however, understatement is more powerful than going over the top. The film’s most eloquent critique of patriarchy is the contrast between Wadjda’s mother’s relationship with Wadjda’s father and Wadjda’s relationship with her friend Abdul. It’s the very opposite of what you’d see in the United States, where adult women have the freedom to associate with any man they want, but children are restricted. Wadjda has more freedom than her mother. But we know it’s not going to last. In a few years, she’ll enter puberty. She’ll have to wear a veil, and the joy she finds in hanging out with Abdul will be over. She’ll be stuck in the same kind of loveless marriage as her mother. She’ll have to ride the same kind of commuter van. Her life is a dead end.
As clever and resourceful as Wadjda is, she has no future under Saudi Arabia’s extreme, almost totalitarian patriarchy.