The last 20 years have seen something of a revolution in Middle Eastern cinema, with many Iranian, Lebanese and Egyptian filmmakers flourish in spite of societal or political restrictions. This new creative renaissance has not however touched on every part of the region.
Saudi Arabia has no cinematographic tradition, nor has it had the chance to actually develop one, given that movie theaters were banned in the country in the eighties. But even in the most conservative country in the region, things are changing. In 2006 the first ever Saudi film "Keif al-Hal?" came out, even though it was shot in the United Arab Emirates, and available only on pay-per-view. Since then, a limited number of Saudi movies have followed suit.
Haifaa Al-Mansour’s film "Wadjda", which was recently screened at the London Film Festival, is special in several respects. First of all, it is reportedly the first film to be shot entirely within Saudi Arabia. Secondly and perhaps more importantly, it's the first internationally screened Saudi film by a female director.
Al-Mansour has previously made three short films, and has gained international acclaim for her award-winning 2005 documentary “Women Without Shadows”. Her work has influenced a whole new wave of Saudi filmmakers and made the issue of opening cinemas in the Kingdom a front-page discussion.
Now, Al-Mansour’s first ever feature film is set to create a whole new debate within Saudi society. Addressing the paralyzing social and political constraints that affect the lives of ordinary Saudis, the film tells the story of eleven-year-old Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), a rebellious and independent young girl from Riyadh who is trying to find her own path in a world where other people generally decide what she can and cannot do.
Al-Mansour paints a picture of a constant brewing political and social oppression. Apart from the official restrictions in women’s everyday life, Wadjda also has to come to terms with the unspoken rules of “good behaviour”, rules that often seem to make very little sense. When she walks down the street she wonders why a man is giving her dirty looks, even if she has covered herself in all the right ways. She has stuck to her side of the bargain, so why is he looking like that?
Wadjda is continually reminded that as a girl she cannot decide her own fate, that she is restricted by customs and expectations. The inequality becomes clear in the little things: In school, she witnesses a fellow classmate being expelled for hanging out with a boy. When she looks at her family tree, she notices that only the male family members are mentioned. She is told by a teacher that girls should not directly touch the Koran when they have their period because they are “dirty”, and she finds herself being told off for laughing in the schoolyard. “Don’t you know”, the teacher tells her, “a woman’s voice is her nakedness”.
After a fight with Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), the boy-next-door, Wadjda becomes infatuated with the idea of getting a bike, so that she can race against him and beat him. However in a society where a woman’s virtue is at the centre of both a family’s social status and national politics, riding a bike is forbidden for girls because it would compromise their virginity. Wadjda’s mother (Reem Abdullah) tries to convince her that it is a foolish idea; "Girls don't ride bikes," she says. "You won't be able to have a child if you ride bikes." She doesn’t give the issue much thought though, as she is more preoccupied with her husband who wants to marry a second wife because she herself cannot bear him any sons.
Meanwhile, though the bike’s 800 Rial price tag is steep, Wadjda is unwilling to give up her dream and starts to save up money by secretly selling bracelets to her friends at school. When she is caught running this scheme, her dream of buying the bike seems to be over. Luckily, she then hears about a cash prize for a Koran recitation competition at her school. She enters the competition and joins a Koran study group. Constantly scolded for not being a “proper pious girl” by her headmistress, Mrs. Hussa (Ahd Kamel), Wadjda seems an unlikely candidate to win the competition. But she proves resilient and even buys an interactive game called “Learn the Quran the Easy Way”.
The magically beautiful recital of Koranic verse that concludes the film converges the individual storylines in both a bittersweet and poetic ending, which implies that in the end, Wadjda has gained much more from her engagement with religion than just the prize money.
Al-Mansour has let the abhorrent gender politics in Saudi society today form the subtle yet poignant background to a charming coming of age tale. While it acknowledges the seemingly immovable nature of Saudi social constructs, “Wadjda” is actually a pretty uplifting story. Al-Mansour doesn’t sugar-coat anything, but the tone remains upbeat and there are several elements in the story that portray a sense of hope and possibly a chance for change to come.
First of all, al-Mansour never portrays any of the characters as all bad. There still is a lot of warmth to the character of Wadjda’s ever-absent father, even though we feel he is letting his family down. Similarly, we start to feel sympathetic towards the hypocritical Mrs Hussa when we learn about her own frustrations in love and in life. Most importantly, while it is impossible to escape the notion that in Saudi society it is the men that are responsible for the suffering of women, it seems that al-Mansour also implicitly sees them as possible agents for change. The friendship with Abdullah, and his clear admiration for Wadjda’s courage and her lust for life seem to tell us that in people like Abdullah there is a real chance of progress, and that if individuals can change, so can society as a whole.
Al-Mansour has always been famous for encouraging debate, and continues to stress the need for Saudis to take a critical look at their belief systems and culture. In “Wadjda”, she has not just done exactly that, but she has done it with humour, charm and an inherent sense of humanity.