Thursday, October 24, 2013

Movie Review: Wadjda

Directed by: Haifaa Al-Mansour.
Written by: Haifaa Al-Mansour.
Starring: Reem Abdullah (Mother), Waad Mohammed (Wadjda), Abdullrahman Al Gohani (Abdullah), Ahd Kamel (Ms. Hussa), Sultan Al Assaf (Father).

The fact that a film like Wadjda exists at all should be cause for celebration. Movie theaters are banned in Saudi Arabia, and women are still banned from doing pretty much anything unless they are accompanied by a man. And yet, somehow Haifaa Al-Mansour, a woman, was able to write and direct a feature film in Saudi Arabia, about a smart little girl, who wants to do things that a “proper” young girl in Saudi Arabia would not want to do. While the movie has caused controversy in Saudi Arabia, the country also selected it as their first submission ever for the Foreign Language Film Oscar. It may be a very small step – representing very little progress – but it’s something.

The film stars young Waad Mohammed as Wadjda – a girl of around 11 who more than anything in the world wants a shiny new bike, so she can ride around with her best friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani). Proper young women do not ride bikes, but Wadjda doesn’t care. She already angers Ms. Hussa (Ahd Kamel), the headmistress at her school, because she doesn’t wear the proper head gear, or shoes, and doesn’t immediately hide herself away while playing when two men start working on a rooftop nearby, meaning – shock – that they could see the little girls playing. There is going to be a Qur’an contest at the school – and top prize in 1,000 Riel – enough to buy the bike of her dreams – so she fakes turning over a new leaf and says that she would like to join Religion Club to prepare for the contest.

Wadjda also has a complicated home life. Her mother works as a nurse, but only when she can get to the hospital – which she cannot do if their demeaning driver refuses to show up for work – which he does on some days. Her father (Sultan Al Assaf) leaves for days or weeks on end, and her mother (Reem Abdullah) has heard that her mother-in-law is trying to fix him up with a new wife – one that will give him a son, instead of just a daughter. When Wadjda sees her father’s family tree – and realizes that she isn’t on it, she adds a leaf herself – only to later find it crumpled on the floor. While outwardly, her father is kind to both her mother and Wadjda, it’s also quite clear that he values Wadjda less because she’s a girl, and not a boy.

The film balances between its neo-realist influences, and a more trying to put a brighter face on this story, which could have been a whole lot darker. Given the way Al-Mansour shoots, and the story that revolves around a bike, it’s hard not to think about Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves – which is clearly an influence. While Wadjda is definitely critical of Saudi society’s treatment of women, it doesn’t get bogged down in darkness, or play like a sermon. Instead, it makes its points against the treatment of women subtly, and then moves on. The fact that Al-Mansour essentially crafts a feel-good movie out of this story, which one suspects may be darker if it happened in real life, allows her to get away with a little bit more criticism than she may otherwise have been able to do. That may seem like Al-Mansour is soft-pedaling her message a little bit – which isn’t exactly untrue – but keep in mind she had to direct all of the outside scenes in the movie from inside a van – so she wouldn’t be seen by others bossing around men. Wadjda may be a small step in the right direction – but it’s still a step.

I found it impossible not to be won over by Wadjda. The movie is charming and funny, but also has a message – one that I think is important. In the West, we may be shocked with how women are treated in some parts of the world – I love my two-year daughter more than anything in the world – but that’s not true everywhere. Wadjda is not a great movie – it is a little too simplistic than that – but it’s an important one.

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