Wadjda: A Girl’s Life, Saudi Style

Wadjda: A Girl’s Life, Saudi Style October 26, 2014

Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), with her beloved bicycle
Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) with her beloved bicycle

Wadjda is a splendid film of notable firsts.  Most significantly, it’s the first movie completely filmed in Saudi Arabia (a country lacking movie theaters or an internal feature film industry), by the first female Saudi director.  Surprisingly, given her confidence, believability, and charm in front of the camera, it’s also the first film role for Waad Mohammed, the child actress portraying the title character.

In light of the centrality of Wadjda‘s religious themes, I was mildly astonished to discover this will be the first review of this movie at Patheos.  Even though the film made the rounds of art-house cinemas last year, the time seems ripe to reconsider and commend to a wider audience this superb, groundbreaking work.  Movie critics perpetually risk succumbing to the near-fatal malady of hyperbole, but I’ll jeopardize my health and posit that Wadjda just might be one of the most important films so far this century.

I say that for multiple reasons. For starters, the conduct of ISIS and other Muslim terrorists competes almost daily with Ebola for top headlines, making ever timely the question of whether Islamic values can peacefully coexist with those of traditional Western humanism.  The now-viral hissy fit by Ben Affleck on Bill Maher’s Real Time talk show reveals the need for rational conversation that sheds more light than heat on this topic.  More particularly, the vitally necessary but sadly controversial feminist activism by such heroes as ex-Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali brings crucial attention to the ongoing devaluation and demeaning of the hundreds of millions of women living under the veil.

In campaigns for human rights, sometimes an excellent story can accomplish more than a mountain of data (Uncle Tom’s Cabin, anyone?).  So, while Ali’s horrifying data about the prevalence of female genital excision and her accurate citation of inherently misogynistic Koran verses are inestimably valuable, oftentimes a movie’s images are worth ten thousand words.

Filmed in the city of Riyadh, the lead character of Wadjda is a 10-year-old girl who merely craves a bicycle of her own, so she can race (and, naturally, defeat) her buddy Abdullah.  Simple, right?  Well, at every turn Wadjda faces obstacles.  Abdullah matter of factly tells her that girls don’t ride bikes.  Miss Hussa, her joylessly pious school principal, emphatically repeats this point.  And most importantly, her affectionate yet very devout mother fears that a bicycle accident could (there’s no delicate way to state this) rupture Wadjda’s hymen and thus destroy her virginity.

Wadjda and Abdullah (Abdullrahman Algohani)
Wadjda and Abdullah (Abdullrahman Algohani)

Nonetheless, Wadjda cannot be deterred from her quest to save enough money for the gorgeous green bike with streamers on its handlebars. She takes a bribe from an older classmate to convey a love letter to a potential suitor.  Later, when Miss Hussa squelches her cottage industry of selling soccer bracelets to her classmates, Wadjda enters a Koran-reciting competition whose prize money would allow her to grab hold of her grail.

Though Wadjda is director Haifaa al-Mansour’s first feature length film, she magnificently succeeds at giving us a completely credible fly-on-the-wall sense of observing life for girls and women in Saudi Arabia.  We are shown, rather than told, the thousand indignities endured by Middle Eastern women.

Since Saudi women can’t possess a driver’s license, we observe a group of burka-clad women sweltering in a van whose verbally abusive driver has thoughtlessly turned off the air conditioning. Girls are reminded in religion class that they cannot touch the Koran if they’re menstruating.  Wadjda studies the family tree hanging on her living room wall, which only lists male ancestors.  She and her classmates are ordered off the playground when tiny silhouettes of men appear atop a distant building, since “if you can see them, they can see you.”  (Naturally, females bear sole responsibility for any sexual temptation bestirring a man’s loins.)

Al-Mansour’s cinematography further underscores these points, knowing precisely when to pull far back or zoom in for emphasis. In one scene, as Wadjda walks home from school, she’s a vulnerable black speck on a near-empty street, while construction workers catcall their sick desire to grope her.

By contrast, her mother (touchingly, tragically portrayed by famed Saudi actress Reem Abdullah) is framed tightly and claustrophobically in her living space, visually conveying restrictive Saudi law that bars women from leaving home without a man’s permission. Her plight is made still worse by her medical inability to bear her husband more children, especially that all-important male heir.  She helplessly longs for his irregular visits, while fearing he will take on a fertile second wife.

Mother and daughter
Mother and daughter

All of this may sound like grim slogging, but al-Mansour wields an admirably light touch that keeps the story buoyant. Waad Mohammed, portraying the title character, emits a mischievous, unquenchable spunk.  When she sasses a shopkeeper who still plays LP’s in his store, sarcastically informing him of this newfangled technology called cassette tapes, you can’t help but smile along with him.  The loving rapport between Wadjda and her mother, the competitive drive and occasional obnoxiousness that masks Abdullah’s crush on Wadjda, and the spare yet upbeat musical score also combine to make this a hope-filled viewing experience.

Evidently, director al-Mansour shares Wadjda’s aspirations for equality for Middle Eastern women. A Muslim herself, she has spoken in interviews of her optimism that Islam’s ossified misogyny can be remedied, despite also alluding to death threats and hostility from more extreme elements within her faith.  The opening words of the film, recited by Wadjda and her classmates in unison, undoubtedly echo al-Mansour’s heartfelt desire:  “I gave myself to God, and I think He has a place for me.”

Director Haifaa al-Mansour
Director Haifaa al-Mansour

The acclaim and honors bestowed upon Wadjda within the Middle East are positive signals that al-Mansour is far from the only artist/activist clamoring for reform within Islam. Saudi authorities submitted Wadjda as their first-ever entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.  Also, at the Dubai International Film Festival, Wadjda garnered top awards for best actress (Waad Mohammed) and best feature film.

Upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, writer of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Abraham Lincoln is alleged to have quipped (a tad condescendingly, methinks), “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”  In a similar fashion, I hope al-Mansour’s indomitable little girl can spark a similar (yet bloodless) rights revolution.

5 out of 5 stars

(Wadjda is rated PG for “thematic elements, brief mild language [of which I remember none], and smoking.”  These themes are handled so gently that I see this film as suitable for all ages.)


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