A defiant pair of Converse sneakers with bright, purple shoelaces peeking out from beneath long, black abaya robes provide the audience with its first glimpse of the rebellious heroine at the center of Haifaa al-Mansour’s new film, Wadjda (2012). Making its North American premiere at Telluride last fall, this politically charged, coming-of-age drama screened at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June, followed by a Q & A with al-Mansour and jointly moderated by film critic, David Ansen, and actress and activist, Alfre Woodard. A groundbreaking moment in cinematic history, Wadjda marks not only the first feature film shot entirely within Saudi Arabia, but also the first directed by a Saudi woman.
The story follows Wadjda (newcomer Waad Mohammed), a young girl with an unwavering determination to buy a bicycle (despite Saudi law restricting girls from riding bikes) to race Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), her childhood friend and next-door neighbor. While at first he teases her, riding around her in circles and stealing her lunch, Abdullah soon becomes an unlikely ally who eventually agrees to give Wadjda secret lessons on the rooftop of her apartment, unbeknownst to her mother.
Viewers may, quite rightly, draw comparisons to the social critiques of Iranian auteur, Jafar Panahi, or Italian neorealism, particularly seeing Wadjda as a contemporary reworking of Bicycle Thieves (1948). Like Vittorio De Sica’s cinematic classic, al-Mansour’s film elevates and juxtaposes its social realist struggle (in this instance, gender inequity instead of economic despair and disparity) with a humanistic aesthetic. Recalling the self-preservationist necessity of the mystic to combat hopelessness and strife in Bicycle Thieves, al-Mansour incorporates an indispensable sense of magic, no more so than in the scene in which Wadjda first glimpses the object of her affections—a brand-new, bicycle. Although the treasured bike is strapped upright to the top of a moving car, Al-Mansour frames it behind a barrier so that it appears as if floating on air.
Entranced, Wadjda races after it and soon encounters its destination, a shop which she begins frequenting daily. With her precocious spunk and infectious charm, she befriends the storeowner, cajoling him into not selling the bicycle until she’s saved up the funds to buy it herself. Subsequently, she joins a religious contest at her school after learning that there’s a substantial cash prize for the winner. Her teachers, particularly the stern Ms. Hussa (Ahd), who generally consider the strong-willed Wadjda a disobedient troublemaker with little regard for sharia law, become convinced that she has suddenly turned over a new leaf. Determined to reach her goal, Wadjda also starts selling bracelets and displaying shocking entrepreneurial savvy in the schoolyard.
At home, life is even more complicated. Although her father (Sultan Al Assaf) clearly loves her mother (Reem Abdullah) and Wadjda, he seldom visits. It also remains a constant source of tension between her parents that he might take another wife to bear him a son. While her mother cooks elaborate dinners and tries to please him in every way, she still doesn’t hesitate or shy away from shouting matches, giving the audience insight into the origin of Wadjda’s uncompromising resolve and tenacity. Wadjda jokes and plays video games with her father, but soon she must reconcile the loving facets of his personality with the cruel and neglectful aspects which often leave her and her mother feeling abandoned. When Wadjda defiantly tapes her name to the family tree that, as her mother explains, only includes the male bloodline, she is crushed to discover the same piece of paper crumbled beside it the next day. Consequently, al-Mansour asks how are these women to make an imprint on society when they are effectively invisible? Ironically, the very act of telling this story and filming the lives of these women in Saudi Arabia, is doing just that; al-Mansour is making visible what has characteristically been kept carefully veiled behind a closed curtain of fear, stigma, and deeply rooted cultural traditions for centuries.
Although Wadja’s mother is strong-willed and resourceful, she still has to rely on a male driver to transport her to work. Later the driver quits following an argument, leaving her mother stranded and her livelihood in jeopardy. Consequently, al-Mansour’s interest in transportation as a symbol of female independence and liberation is applicable to her as well as Wadjda, who seems to implicitly understand this in her desire for a bike. While the idea of a bicycle seems playful and innocent, particularly from a western viewpoint, its progressive and even transgressive connotations raise important questions regarding control, resistance, and female empowerment within the context of a conservative society, as in Saudi.
While the women of Wadjda are reliant on men, they also lean on one another. A friend of Wadjda’s mother shocks her by revealing her job at a hospital working alongside men, offering an alternative to Wadjda’s mother cloistered existence in a segregated society. Though quite the outsider, Wadjda also assists older girls at school as a courier since she possesses a certain amount of mobility, a luxury that the audience can sense will be short-lived as she grows older. The most touching aspect of the film however is to watch the relationship between mother and child unfold. While her mother spends much of the film trying to reign in Wadjda’s unruly tendencies, she also encourages her and helps her practice her Koran recitation for the school competition. Moreover, with her husband continuing to disappoint her and remaining an inconsistent presence in her life, she comes to depend on Wadjda for emotional support more than she realizes.
It is heartening to witness Wadjda achieving international recognition winning prizes at festivals as varied as Dubai, Rotterdam, and Venice, especially since Saudi Arabia does not even have a national cinema. Furthermore, it’s a remarkable feat when you consider that, aside from filming inside, al-Mansour had to direct all exteriors from within a van, communicating with the crew over a walkie to observe Saudi Arabia’s strict segregationist culture. She insists that she did not set out to make an overtly political film, but, rather, a meditation on the integration of tradition and modernity. Although there are no plans to show the film in Saudi, it will be interesting to see the response throughout the rest of the Middle East. Although the Arab Spring protests in 2011 ignited discussions of shifting gender relations with women working alongside men, al-Mansour admits that the promise of change in the aftermath has been slow to come and often fallen short of expectations.
At one point in the film, a teacher, who catches Wadjda shouting in the streets, chides her that, “a woman’s voice reveals her nakedness.” With the apt opening scene of Wadjda singing in an all-girl’s choir and each shot thereafter, al-Mansour does not seek to embody every Saudi woman’s experience, but, instead, lays bare one spirited girl’s story, one girl’s irrepressible voice, offering a glimpse of hope for future generations.
Laura Swanbeck is a graduate student in the Department of Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA and a graduate student researcher at the UCLA Center for the Study of Women
Wadjda was written and directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour