Movie Review

First Saudi Feature Film: Lovely, Delicate and Unique

Directed by a woman in a country that has no movie theaters and keeps men and women strictly segregated is enough to make 'Wadjda' an intriguing work to watch.

Wadjda Written and directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour; with Waad Mohammed, Reem Abdullah, Sultan Al Assaf

This is the first feature film made (by a woman, no less) in a country that has no movie theaters and keeps men and women strictly segregated − enough to make “Wadjda,” from Saudi Arabia, an intriguing work to watch. In addition, “Wadjda” is a lovely, delicate film, and the result is a cinematic event that, beyond just satisfying our curiosity, offers us a unique viewing experience.

“Wadjda” was funded and produced by, among others, production companies and foundations in Germany (since Saudi Arabia does not have a film industry, most of the contributors to this project, including the cinematographer and the composer, are German), Jordan and Dubai. The Sundance Institute provided some additional support, and the production was also encouraged by Saudi Arabia itself. For the first time ever, the country − which, as noted above, does not have a movie theater in which to show “Wadjda” − has produced a contender for the Best Foreign Picture Oscar (an honor for which it is all but certain to be nominated).

There is no question that “Wadjda” is intended to be a kind of propaganda attesting to Saudi Arabia’s openness to social change. It is no accident that the first Saudi-made picture is the work of a woman, Haifaa Al-Mansour, who was educated abroad (at the American University in Cairo and the University of Sydney) and has already made some short films as well as a documentary, “Women Without Shadows,” about the status of women in Saudi Arabia. Nor is it a coincidence that the heroine of “Wadjda” is a rebellious ten-year-old girl.

The movie’s agenda must be kept in mind while you watch or discuss it. Perhaps if it had come to us from another place, where movies are made more regularly, it would have seemed less important; critics might then have described it as a pleasant, minor work of the kind we’ve seen before. But because “Wadjda” is not only that − and it has significant cinematic virtues − the combination of its origins, its qualities, and its clear propaganda, in the context of the modern Middle East and its relations with the West, makes it not just intriguing.

The heroine of the movie, ten-year-old Wadjda (the charming Waad Mohammed), lives with her elegant mother (Reem Abdullah). Her father (Sultan Al Assaf) visits frequently. Because his wife did not bear him a son, he moved back in with his parents and is thinking about taking a second wife, who might finally give him the male child he so wants. Wadjda goes to a girls’ school run by a teacher that keeps her charges under strict control, to make sure they do not break the rules of women’s behavior in Saudi Arabia. The young girl’s independent spirit finds expression only on the neighborhood playground with her best friend, a boy her age. Her greatest dream is to be the owner of a particular green bicycle she saw in a shop window. Two obstacles stand in her path: first, she doesn’t have the money to pay for the bicycle; second, in Saudi Arabia girls are not allowed to ride bikes.

Most of the plot follows Wadjda’s pursuit of her rebellious dream. The movie’s charm comes from the way it wanders lightly through this plot, giving it an open, almost episodic feel. There are many delightful scenes, but the way in which the writer-director chooses to show us Saudi Arabia is almost more interesting than the story itself. The country we see here is not the luxury resort often featured on our television screens, but − even though the social milieu in question is relatively well-off − a visually unglamorous, even dull locale. The heroine’s rebellious spirit glows in this setting like a flower blooming in a desert, and this makes the result poignant despite its restrained, even detached tone.

“Wadjda” is openly critical of how Saudi women are treated (Wadjda is often criticized for not covering her hair), exposes the hypocrisy within this treatment, and even dares to show how Wadjda uses religion to fulfill a dream that clashes with religious dictates. Even when the movie seems bold and subversive, however, we cannot forget the motivations behind it.

Still, what it has to say is rather sharp, and since it is a well-made picture with a degree of intelligence and decency, it ends up creating an analogy between the heroine and the filmmaker. Just as Wadjda uses a quiz on the Koran for her own purposes, Al-Mansour manages to exploit the limitations under which she made the film − among other things, she was required to direct it from within a caravan, to keep her separate from the men involved in the production − to fulfill her own ideological goals.