Wadjda (PG)

Oct 22, 2014
Cranbrook Film Society

This film is quirky and witty, with serious cultural undertones. Its charm rests largely with its leading child actress, Waad Mohammed. It is the first feature film to have been shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and the first to be directed by a woman.

“Boundary pushing cinema”
Robbie Collin – Telegraph.

Haiffa Al Mansour | Saudi Arabia | 2013 | 98 minutes | PG

Film notes:

The first Saudi Arabian film to be made by a female director is all the more amazing when one considers the cultural context: there is only one cinema in Saudi Arabia, an IMAX in a science and technology centre that shows documentaries. So both the making of the film itself and its subject matter, a young girl’s desire to own and ride a bicycle, speak volumes about the position of women in Saudi society and their hopes (often thwarted) for freedom and opportunity.

The protagonist of the film is a likeable and determined ten year old, beautifully played by Waad Mohammed. She is mystified by the logic which states that it is inappropriate for a girl to ride a bicycle and decides to take matters into her own hands to earn the money she needs for a bicycle of her own. Wadjda herself is seen as a spirited rebel questioning the norms of the society she lives in. She’s a bit of a tomboy whose best friend is a boy her own age, and who wears jeans and trainers under her traditional abaya. Though as an audience we warm to this rebellious young heroine, I couldn’t help feeling that the film was trying a bit too hard to ingratiate itself to a western audience in the way that Wadjda’s independence and rebelliousness were represented by her love of western culture such as pop music and clothes.

It’s a bittersweet film, largely consisting of vignettes of everyday life, and while many of them are funny, we get an acute sense of the frustrations that Saudi women of all ages have to bear. She and her mother prepare the food for her father and his friends but cannot eat in the same room as them; her mother is reliant on a surly driver as it is illegal for women to drive; at school Wadjda is told off for playing in the sight of men, and a family tree at home only includes the names of the men in the family.

Director Haifaa Al Masour grew up in rural Saudi Arabia, near Riyadh, but studied at the American University in Cairo and subsequently at film school in Sydney, Australia. As well as drama, she has also worked in the documentary genre, and her award winning Women Without Shadows (2005), deals with the hidden lives of women in the Arab world. Saudi Arabia has almost no film industry and it took five years and German funding to get Wadjda off the ground. Al Masour was determined to film in Saudi Arabia but because of the conservative segregated nature of the country she could not be outside with the actors and had to direct from inside a van using a walkie-talkie.

The style and tone of Wadjda owes much to both realism and documentary and the Director’s Western influences are plain to see. There are, for example, shades of Jeffrey Blitz’s 2002 documentary Spellbound in the Qu’ran reciting competition. In spite of the realism of the film there is underlying symbolism too. Like The Bicycle Thieves (De Sica, 1948), Jour de Fete (Tati, 1949) and the more recent Dardenne brothers The Kid with a Bike (2011), Wadjda’s bicycle represents freedom to move beyond the narrow confines of her current existence.

The film ends with her cycling towards and stopping at an intersection, watching traffic stream by in both directions. Poised on the brink of womanhood she appears to have the opportunity to head off into a new future, but how far can she really go? Will she launch herself into the dangerous traffic of the wider world or will she be forced to turn back and be constrained within the narrow confines of her sex and her small town neighbourhood? Though many critics have seen in Wadjda hope and optimism about the future of Saudi women, there is a more pessimistic reading too. Wadjda’s mother, divorced by her husband for not providing a male heir, faces a bleak and narrow future. Perhaps her gift to her daughter, rather than stemming from optimism, may come from a desire to give her daughter a brief moment of joy before the inevitable constraints to her freedom that her incipient womanhood must bring.

Helen Hawken


            Weighted vote 90.4%