“Wadjda” will always be etched in cinema history for the fact that it was the very first feature film made in Saudi Arabia (a country that has no cinemas whatsoever), but an even more remarkable fact is that the film has been directed by a woman. Haifaa Al-Mansour has created a little gem with “Wadjda”; it is a beautiful film filled with wonderful characters that has ensured that it will be remembered for its quality and not only its significance in history.
“Wadjda” is a simple tale of a young girl and her attempts to secure the money she needs to purchase a new bicycle. To succeed in her task, Wadjda enters a Koran recital competition at her school where the winner is awarded 1000 riyal, which easily accounts for the 800 riyal she needs for her bike. However, it doesn’t take long for Wadjda to release that winning is going to be a lot harder than she initially thought, not only due to the fact that she knows little in regards to religious studies, but she is also fighting against her country’s beliefs in regards to what activities are deemed proper for a girl her age to partake in.
This film was such an eye opener and very entertaining. What I loved about it is that its simplicity and economy of plot actually hides within its story a deeper look at modern life in Saudi Arabia, with particular focus on what it is like to be a woman in that society. Thankfully, Haifaa Al-Mansour has presented her story in the most positive light, and she uses the lightest of touches to expose and explain some serious issues within her country. Surprisingly (at least for me), “Wadjda” is also very funny at times. So while the main plot really is about a young girl trying to buy herself a bike, Al-Mansour is able to use her story to explain just what it is like to be a woman living in today’s Saudi Arabia. What I found most surprising was just how “normal” (at least in Western terms) their home life was. They would wear normal, everyday clothes like jeans, t-shirts and long dresses, have their hair down, even wear a little make-up and yet, as soon as they leave the confines of their home, the girls have to cover themselves from head to toe, exposing nothing but their eyes. Also the kind of activities they do at home are the same things we would do like sit around watching television, play on the playstation, or listen to rock music. I was totally unaware that this was the case and am glad that the film was able to show me all of this.
The reason why this film is so successful and so entertaining is the character of Wadjda herself. She is played by Waad Mohammed and she is an absolute delight on screen. Mohammed gives Wadjda such a cheeky streak; she is always one to fire a quick word back at someone, she plays with the boys in her neighbourhood and she is just so damned sassy and spunky. She is an absolutely adorable character and one that is easy to fall in love with because she is just so full of life and when she sets her eyes on something, you know she is going to do whatever it takes to get it. Another thing I loved was Wadjda’s relationship with her mother which is just beautiful to see. It is a normal mother / daughter relationship but you can feel that there is so much love between them. Like any child, you see Wadjda push her mother to the limits sometimes, but there is never any doubt that she always wants the best for Wadjda and for her to be always happy. The mother is wonderfully played by Reem Abdullah who just brings so much warmth to her role, especially when she is at home with her daughter. When she is outside, you can sense a fear within her due to her husband’s jealous nature which means she is cautious to interact with any male that crosses her path. Speaking of the mother (who is unnamed in the film), her story forms a subplot within “Wadjda” which sees her wanting to buy a red dress to impress her husband and to stop him from looking at candidates for a second wife that his mother has set up for him. It is obvious that her marriage with this man is not one of convenience but one of definite love, and it would break her heart to see the man she loves take on a second wife. While the film is definitely a crowd pleaser, the mother’s story is the place in the film where we witness the harsh realities that life sometimes hands us.
One must not overlook just how hard this film was for director Haifaa Al-Mansour to make and just how significant an achievement it was. While it is no way illegal for a female to make a film in Saudi Arabia, it would definitely be considered a taboo subject. Just the fact that Al-Mansour not only made this film, but that she was the first person of any gender to make a feature length film in Saudi Arabia is a stunning achievement of the highest level. To put it all into perspective, Al-Mansour was not allowed to interact with her mostly male crew on the film and when it came to shooting scenes outside, she had to be hidden in a van streets away, directing her actors via a walkie talkie. To make any film under these conditions would be something of a miracle, but to also make a film the quality of “Wadjda” is something else entirely. Al-Mansour obviously has a lot of talent and directs her tale in a very simple style so as to let the drama speak for itself, with her camera work never being intrusive or showy. That’s not to say the film doesn’t look beautiful, quite the contrary; “Wadjda” is a gorgeously visual film. The colour palette of the film mainly consists of earthy colours; browns, yellows and oranges, but there are two moments in the film when bright splashes of red blind the screen. The first moment is significant as it is the colour of the dress Wadjda’s mother wants to buy. After being stuck in a world of muted autumn colours, the sudden splash of red explodes onto the screen, making sure we take notice. The other moment the colour red enters the film is during a prayer session that Wadjda and her mother share together.
While Al-Mansour portrays Saudi Arabia without heavy judgement, there were a couple of instances in the film where I felt she portrayed the neighbouring Pakistani’s in rather a more negative light. From memory, there is only two Pakistani characters in the film, both of them minor (one is actually miniscule) but neither are portrayed as positively as the Saudi characters. One is the driver for Wadjda’s mother (it is forbidden for females to drive in Saudi Arabia) who is constantly arguing with the poor woman, and another is a perverted construction worker trying to entice young Wadjda up on site to “play”. Whether or not these portrayals are truthful or not, I cannot judge because I do not know, but I did find it interesting that these characters are the only ones in the film that seem to be judged (particularly because the relationship between the two countries is apparently quite strong and positive).
Overall, I loved “Wadjda”, both the character and the film. It was such an illuminating experience that taught me so much about the plight of females in today’s Saudi Arabia, but importantly director Al-Mansour was able to do all of this without a heavy-handedness. The simplicity of the film’s plot reminded me of Iranian director JafarPanahi and his directorial debut, “The White Balloon” which is massive praise as that is a film (and filmmaker) I adore. Al-Mansour has already created history with “Wadjda” but she has also created a bloody entertaining film at the same time. This is an absolute crowd pleaser that I wholeheartedly recommend to all.