A film from a country where no films have been shot before, a country without movie theaters and where men and women are strictly segregated; and a film, what’s more, made by a woman – all these already make “Wadjda,” the first movie to be made in Saudi Arabia, an intriguing work to watch. Add to this the fact that “Wadjda” is a lovely, gentle film, and the result is a cinematic event that, beyond just satisfying our curiosity, offers us a unique viewing experience.
“Wadjda” was funded and made by, among others, production companies and foundations from 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, but 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 Oscar for best foreign picture (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 10-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 some other place, where movies are made more regularly, it would have seemed less important; critics might then have described it as a sympathetic minor work of a kind we’ve seen before. But because “Wadjda” is not just that – and it has significant cinematic virtues – the combination of its origins, its qualities, and its clear propaganda aims in the context of the Middle East today and its relations with the West combine to make it not just intriguing, but riveting to watch.
The eponymous 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 whose headmistress that keeps her charges on a short leash to make sure they comply with the strict rules governing female behavior in Saudi Arabia. Wadjda’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 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; and second, in Saudi Arabia girls aren't 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, Mansour manages to take advantage of the limitations under which she made the film – among other things, she was required to direct it from inside a trailer, away from the male production crew - to fulfill her own ideological goals.
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