By Charlie Tarabour
The significance of Haifaa Al Mansour’s Wadjda cannot be understated. Not only is it the first feature film shot entirely within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, but the first major narrative feature directed by a Saudi female. And indeed the film is a bold, projecting debut from a country with particularly restrictive laws and customs regarding female expression. The groundbreaking representations of national and gender identity in dialogue make Wadjda a cultural event, as well as a cinematic one.
Mansour wrote and edited her screenplay while completing her Master’s in Film at the University of Sydney, as well as participating in numerous screenplay labs and competitions. Given the film’s earthquake on the international scene, the script was a long time coming. And that refined meticulousness shows in the story’s skillfully economical execution. Filled with stark, but subtle imagery, and natural growth in both character and story, the accomplished Wadjda is an intrepid narrative feature debut.
The film begins with the shoes of a class of young girls at a Muslim school in Saudi Arabia. Amongst the flat, drab black shoes of most girls, receding into the shadow, a bright pair of roughed-up Converses with purple laces appears, speaking volumes in a symbolic language one does not have to be Saudi to understand.
Wadjda is a bright, spunky ten-year-old growing up in the Saudi suburbs. She wants a bike to race her friends, or specifically one friend, a boy named Abdullah from a wealthy family who has a crush on Wadjda. We never learn whether the feelings are reciprocated. Wadjda’s sly. She keeps things close to the chest, operating as a pseudo-grifter at times. But she’s not trying to take advantage of anyone. She’s just trying to express herself because “girls don’t ride bikes.” She wants to prove a girl can beat a boy.
But free spirits like Wadjda’s don’t fly well in the strict religious school she attends. The principal Ms. Hussa criticizes her for lack of headscarf in multiple scenes. She also publicly martyrs two girls in a gross exaggeration of a minor misunderstanding. Ms. Hussa understands little outside rules and customs, which is why she’s caught off guard when Wadjda decides to enter the Qur’an recitation contest. She assumes Wadjda is genuine is her newfound devotion to Islam, but Wadjda wants the prize money to pay for her bike.
At home, Wadjda an indirect observer of her parents’ marriage troubles. She engages with her mother about wanting to get a bike, but that’s only ancillary to the real conflict. Wadjda watches her mother deal with an absent husband who may be leaving them for a new family. The mother fusses and rationalizes, tries to impress and do well by her husband. Wadjda observes and chimes in rarely. Here, Mansour uses the weighty, skilled economy of expressing expository, but also dramatic, information in overhead conversations and ontological silence. Wadjda’s eyes do a lot of communicating, not just to her mother, but teachers, Ms. Hussa, Abdulaah and the man who sells bikes. There is a richness and power in these simple images, Mansour said. “That’s why I chose the bicycle. It’s cinematic. It presents a freedom of movement. It’s simple and unintimidating.”
Wadjda’s storyline is more visual and symbolic. She is not unlike the Nancy Drew, a girl detective who doesn’t lose her keen edge, just finds more mysteries to solve and events to both participate and analyze. Her conflict with her mother is where the film’s real drama lies. Ultimately her husband leaves her, but she comes out the other side all right and a little wiser, more sympathetic definitely. It’s not about the birth of a feminist. It’s just a human story about people finding their voices.
Wadjda always talks about how her mother has a beautiful voice and indeed it’s heard a few private times in the house, alone with Wadjda. She has a voice, but is selective and restrictive about whom she shares it with. Because in Saudi Arabia, “A woman’s voice is her nakedness.”
She is not some pitiful housewife, although she often lets customs dictate her limitations. She tries to be a good Muslim wife and mother. On certain levels, he is an inspiration to Wadjda, not just with her beautiful singing voice for Wadjda’s Qur’an recital competition, but with her grace and intelligence.
The film is ostensibly about Wadjda and the bike, but the deeper emotional conflict lies in the mother’s storyline. Wadjda’s fundraising schemes provide simply the material motivation for Wadjda to confront her mother about self-expression. The mother is Mansour’s favorite character to watch “I identify a lot with her. Same generation. We grew up in the same kind of Saudi, when it was conservative and I understand exactly how she feels. To change her ways, at the end, to come to this realization that she wants to give the bike to Wadjda, it’s a big moment for her.”
Mansour further discusses the mother and her affirmative response to the new, challenging world she faces at the end. “I felt the loss, it changed her, but it did not break her. Women like this in Saudi, nobody notices because they are just ‘nice’ and they are ‘at home.’ They are taken for granted. And being taken for granted can keep pushing them down. But when she was taken for granted, she refused. That is admirable.”
This affirmative response to loss comes when her mother and Wadjda come together on the roof and she gives Wadjda the bike. “They are above everything. They are on top of the whole city.” The roof is not just the place where two Saudi women can come together and look out on their world with experience, it’s the only place they can look out onto the world without social constraints. “The roof, for me as a filmmaker, was a place of freedom. I wanted to open it up, not be inside rooms all the time.”
The roof is an almost contentious middle space in the film and in Saudi life. It is a place of ambiguous customs as it is part of the private property of home, but can look out on the wider external life of society. “This is where a woman can exist with a free air without going totally public.” It’s only place where Wadjda can learn from Abdullah to ride a bike. It has the open area of the exterior world, but without the restrictive roles. Wadjda and her mother do not have to wear head-scarfs. It’s the optimal setting for finding’s one voice, under the auspices of private property, but with the fresh air of a wider world.
Meanwhile, Wadjda goes from misfit to master of her voice and delivers a knock-out performance at the competition. Ms. Hussa is pleasantly surprised at the transformation Wadjda seems to have gone through. That is, until onstage, after Wadjda has won the competition, she tells the audience she’ll use the prize money to buy a bike. Ms. Hussa, alarmed and offended, de facto confiscates the money and donates it to a Palestinian charity.But Wadjda has the last word
Wadjda comes home to find her father has left for a new family. Her mother is smoking on the roof and has a gift for Wadjda, the bike. The finale invokes the promise of a new chapter in both of their lives and the hope of transcending their confined roles in Saudi society. Wadjda cruises down the street and easily leaves Abdullah in her dust.
The wider implications and connections are vibrantly present throughout Wadjda. “I wanted something that has some kind of legacy, something that I can lean on, references to other cinemas and other scenes so I don’t exist in a vacuum.” The main premise draws immediate comparison to The Bicycle Thief. She is an admitted fan of De Sica’s film and Italian neo-realism “I loved the fresh way of dealing with the society away from the studios and everything, documenting life.”
She also expresses praise for Jafar Panahi’s Offside. “It capitalizes on space and expression very well.” The same can be said of Wadjda.
The connotations also serve secondary purposes as cultural export. Saudi Arabia is a country without cultural dialogue. There is internal TV production and little beamed in from other countries. There is also fairly strict censorship. The Kingdom is not a country that represents itself often, expressing itself in the cultural imaginary. Most representations of Saudi come from without, through other countries’ cultural imaginations, filling the void left by Saudi’s silence.
And for many outside of Saudi, this is the debut of Saudi cinema to the international scene. The responsibility is not lost on Mansour. With her post-national education background, (she studied in Cairo too) she’s created an internationally-readable cinema. “Writing was difficult because I wanted a film that was very Saudi, very authentic, but also one other people could understand.”
Saudi Arabia is an incredibly dynamic place and Mansour’s firm proponent of Saudi self-expression. “I think it’s such an amazing place. There’s so much happening. It’s a society that is in motion and young.” Mansour commented. “Saudis lives are so rich because they encounter so many layers. Saudi is conservative. Saudi has money. So many things that conflict everyday.”
But the independent film scene in Saudi Arabia is daunting, if not downright bleak. Mansour said: “We don’t have sufficient backing for filmmaking. We don’t have film festivals or anything.” She tells of how the beleaguered Saudi filmmakers have to rely on international festivals, programs and institution in order to get their films made, or even generate the buzz to finish a production. Wadjda was partially funded and made possible by multiple German production houses.
These obstacles were made doubly so by Mansour’s gender. She couldn’t film in public with men. She had to direct from a nearby van. This shows in the emotional separatedness between Wadjda and her mother’s comfortable, open home and the hostile, strict wider world.
Mansour explained how Saudi filmmakers’ only outlet is to apply to festivals and workshops in nearby countries like Qatar and U.A.E. without any priority. “But our films win because people are seeing there are so many things a person goes through in Saudi that makes real life more mature.”
The conversation with Mansour naturally turns the issues and themes the wider Muslim world. Wadjda brings to mind changing demographics in Saudi Arabia. Mansour personifies the statements she makes about Saudi society. “Saudis now, especially young Saudis, they want to be part of the world, they want to change.”
Even though she is cautious not to polemicize too much about social issues in Saudi, she still thematically develops them within the film and in external statements about the wider Muslim World. “Islam has gone through major politicizing and lot of people use it for that. It was a different kind of religion before the 70’s and the 80’s. Now, with the Ihkwan al Muslimeen (Muslim Brotherhood) and all that, it became more political, more militant and all about power.”
She has faith in the Muslim population that they seek social change and understand this militancy is unhealthy and unsustainable. “They tried. They tried it for two decades and it didn’t work. So people now, they are moving away from all those codes. I’m not talking about books and I’m not talking about religion, I’m talking about my hometown. In my hometown, they don’t know, they don’t read. It’s just their lives and what they want to do with their lives. I feel they’ve changed so much. They just want to go back to the same kind of intimacy they had two decades ago with religion. They still will be always faithful, but they also want to coexist with modern life when it comes to entertainment and job opportunities.” Mansour is also talking about herself here. Even with her intellectual cosmopolitanism, she connects with the wider populations who cannot afford MFAs. She knows the plight of artist and the plight within her art should reflect wider community’s plight(s). “ [Saudi] just wants to be sort of a normal country, as in not very militant, not very conservative. This is what is happening. I don’t know it’s reform or a natural progression from that failure of captivating people for so long.”
It’s interesting she talks about political Muslim movements “captivating” people because that’s essentially what films do with audiences. However, Mansour clearly does not want to be the final word on any dialogue of Saudi and the world. She simply wants to get one started. She wants a chorus of voices on this dialogue. And each being mindful of each needing to find itself.