[25 October 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
This is 2013, right? This is a modern world filled with tireless technological advances, great leaps in scientific understanding, and a growing globalism which allows formerly outside cultures to claim a portion of the global plan, correct? We do try and strive for equal rights, national sovereignty, and a right to self determination? So the social science fiction of something like Wadjda should be seen as nothing short of shocking. It should be viewed as not only a triumph for its filmmaker (the first woman to ever make a movie in the horribly paternalistic theocracy of Saudi Arabia) and film subject, but as a telling window into a world that, supposedly, shouldn’t exist in the 21st century. Sure, religious “freedom” has formed the foundation for such onerous oppression, but by watching our little heroine and the various women around her, we see how Saudi females forge victories out of the diminishing windows of opportunity they are (rarely) given.
All little Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) wants is a bicycle. Her friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Algohani) teases her, telling her that girls don’t ride bikes and, besides, she doesn’t have the 800 Riyals it costs to buy one. Little does he know that Wadjda works every angle she can at her all girl’s school, avoiding the constant scowl of her Headmistress (Ahd) while selling mixtapes, candy, and other contraband for her equally repressed classmates. Things are equally dicey at home, with her handsome father (Sultan Al Assaf) constantly chiding her mother (Reem Abdullah) that he will look for another wife is she doesn’t straighten up and act the part. Eventually, Wadjda finds the answer to her two wheeled dreams - a Qur’an recitation contest which pays 1000 Riyals to the winner. Studying as hard as her constantly preoccupied pre-adolescent brain can, she hopes to win. Of course, even if she does, that doesn’t guarantee she’ll get what she wants. This is Saudi Arabia, after all.
There are times when you will think Wadjda a twee and artfully cloying coming of age, a movie made up of beats we’ve seen several dozen times before. Then you’ll realize that everything is set in the otherworld dimensions of the man-powered Arabic world, and you jaw starts to drop. It’s almost impossible to believe what the female characters have to put up with here (and one imagines it’s actually much worse in reality). It’s almost unbelievable. Wadjda is reprimanded like every other naughty little girl is, but the adults are completely cut off from what we would consider to be a set of inalienable human rights. Take the mother. She lives under the constant cloud of a husband who trades on his ability to verbally divorce her by using the threat of new wife to keep her in line. Even when she does everything she can for him, she is left in a subservient, slighted role, which just doesn’t seem to fit her veiled (literally) vitality.
Then there are the teachers, acting like agents in a McCarthy-era witch hunt, worried about how the girls wear their hair, hand holding and touching in public, and perhaps the biggest sin of all - being visible to the men as they move from class to class. Though there are times when Wadjda the film wants to make us aware of why these laws are important (this is especially true in the case of our heroine’s home life) they often play like missives from an alien artifact. It’s just stunning to think people believe in such strategies, that they are willing to succumb to such treatment (which can get very brutal at times) to serve a spoiled, entitled, elitist group. You know it’s bad when a lowly driver, slovenly and given to disrespectful outbursts and smacks, can still demand - and readily get - the respect of his opposite sex ‘inferiors.’ If ever there was a testament against Sharia law, this movie is it.
But writer/director Haifaa al-Mansour has more up her sleeve than undermining the ruling regime. Instead, she wants us to see Wadjda for what she represents - the possible future of Saudi Arabia. Under the black robes and face veil is a girl who loves the ways of the West, their sneakers and their snacks, who enjoys mocking her elders knowing full well that, at her age, she will receive little more than a stern retort. Of course, as she grows, she see what could happen to her (a pair of her friends are condemned for doing little more than talking closely) and, by arguing for a bike, she is basically defying her heritage and her faith with a request for…freedom. But the great thing is, Wadjda doesn’t care. Instead, she asks the basic question “Why?” and then scoffs when the answer seems based in religion, not reality.
Unfortunately, the window on an unusual world angle is all al-Mansour’s movie has going for it. The story is routine, the coming of age only complicated by the script dicta of the Qur’an. Wadjda and her mother are the most complete, three dimensional characters while everyone else is painted in the broadest of one note brushstrokes. Granted, people in modern Saudi Arabia may be nothing more than model archetypes, and al-Mansour may be working within the confines of the society she is situated in, but as with all great art, challenge is part of the process. Wadjda the character has much more chutzpah than Wadjada the film, though the reasons for same are obvious. One is a fictional character. The other is a statement that could land its maker in very, very hot water.
Still, this movie should be seen, both as an expression within oppression and a wake-up call to those in the West who wonder why the Middle East is so unsettled. In a world where we strive, daily, to determine the proper personal liberties of everyone involved, where we simultaneously clamor for calm and conformity, where faith is the foundation and formation for both genuine good and unconscionably evil, the situations highlighted here are both unfathomable and all too familiar. Recognizing the undeniable achievement and accomplishment here, Wadjda will still be a maddening movie for a ‘modern’ sensibility. It’s like looking back at our own sketchy history and coming down on the side of wrong, and then basing our entire rule of law on same. There is hope here. There’s also hopelessness.