October 31, 2013

A Familiar Vision From an Unfamiliar Writer

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Out of context, Wadjda is a delightful, largely standard Bildungsroman about a tween girl, Wadjda (Waad Mohammad), who uses her guile, determination and spunk to overcome an acute adversity. However, it is a transcendent, jarring film for its use of setting and its very existence: Wadjda is not only the first feature film entirely shot and set in Saudi Arabia, it is a film directed and written by Haifaa al-Mansour, a Saudi Arabian woman.

Saudi Arabia is ranked 145th out of 148 for gender equality by the UN. It is illegal for women to drive, they are just beginning to receive voting rights and they require male guardianship to do things like open bank accounts or ride bicycles. Gender segregation remains such that in especially conservative areas, al-Mansour had to direct from a van, using walkie-talkies to direct actors. Nonetheless, Wadjda does not allow the potential cultural and political significance to be the summation of the film. Instead, these gender roles and restrictions serve as the film’s impetus, with the mother-daughter relationship and the strength of youth serving as overarching themes.

Wadjda herself is pretty much your classic tween — she likes American pop, playing hopscotch, painting her nails and hanging out with the neighbor boy, Abdullah (Abdullrahman Algohani). After being teased by a bike-riding Abdullah, Wadjda challenges him to a race, only to remember she is without a bike of her own. But when she goes to her mother (Reem Abdullah) asking about a bike, she is rebuked and told, “You won’t be able to have children if you ride a bike.” Undeterred, Wadjda sets about winning a school-sponsored religious competition to raise the funds to purchase a bike of her own.

Throughout the movie, Wadjda and her mother are each subjected to various forms of conflict rooted in gender disparity and social expectations. Wadjda’s father, who is only intermittently present, is in search of a second wife due to his first’s inability to bear him a son. The mother acts as how I suspect an ideal woman is expected to act in Saudi Arabia — she takes his open aspirations in stride while refusing to work around men, exclaiming that “My husband’s so jealous he can’t stand the thought of other men looking at me!” Whether you believe her behavior is a result of brainwashing or simply an aspect of her devote religiousness, her passivity is tragic. Reem Abdullah, a rare professional actor in the cast, does a superb job portraying a complex character whose actions I find fault with but whose situation I empathize with. She never seems weak, simply defeated.

One of the best-done aspects of the film was the juxtaposition between modernity and what I consider to be inexplicable oppression. In one scene, Wadjda’s father (Sultan Al Assaf) makes a rare appearance at home and is playing video games on a large flat screen when his wife brings up his search for another woman. He merely shrugs, and says that if she is ready to bear him a boy it would not be necessary. On a wall opposite the television, his family tree hangs on the wall. It only lists the males of the family; when Wadja tries pinning her name to it, he removes it.

Al-Mansour makes it clear that this second class treatment is driven as much by other women as men. The school administrator is a harsh woman who warns her pupils that laughing out loud and being overheard by men is socially unacceptable. The religious teacher prefaces one class by reminding her pupils that “If you’ve got your period, you are not allowed to touch the Koran.” Multiple women are heard expressing their extreme disapproval for an older, teenage girl who is caught alone with a non-family man. Even the young girls Wadjdwa befriends have developed a keen sense of accepted conduct. Upon seeing some men in the distance, they duck behind the corner, one explaining, “respectable girls go inside.”

Obviously, al-Mansour is quite familiar with Western-style films, which means the structure and cinematography will seem quite familiar to American audiences. In fact, a less poignant version of this film could easily pass for a low budget, Arabic Akeelah and the Bee. Instead of coming off as a boilerplate goodwill movie, however, the film succeeds because it takes a minimal, personal approach to problems encountered daily by millions of women, in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. Even in the ending, al-Mansour keeps the movie grounded. While the viewer experiences some joy, the overall hopefulness for the immediate future, at least as far as women’s rights are concerned, is largely muted. Instead, personal satisfaction has been achieved by young one girl. While that may seem trivial in comparison to the significant oppression faced by Saudi women, the confidence to reach for such basic rights is the essential building block for a more equal society.