Director: Haifaa al-Mansour
Screenplay: Haifaa al-Mansour
Producers: Gerhard Meixner, Roman Paul
Starring: Waad Mohammed, Reem Abdullah
Country: Saudi Arabia
BBFC Certification: PG
Duration: 98 mins
Wadjda is a film of firsts. The debut feature film of writer/director Haifaa al-Mansour, the first female director in Saudi Arabia, it stars a first time actress (Waad Mohammed) and became the first Saudi Arabian film to be submitted for consideration for the Best Foreign Language Oscar (though ultimately it was not nominated). With so much cultural importance behind it, the viewer might expect Wadjda to be a heavy watch but al-Mansour opted instead to produce a film that is entertaining and appealing to all age groups and puts a sweet story at the forefront while never watering down the themes that drive the narrative and give it its dimensions. Noticeably influenced by early Neorealist classics such as Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves or Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Wadjda holds its own among this illustrious company, emerging as a film worthy of its historical importance.
Among the many awards for which Wadjda was nominated was the Asia Pacific Screen Award for Best Children’s Feature. While Wadjda is undoubtedly a film that can be enjoyed by the whole family, in most territories children will likely need their parents there to explain some of the Saudi religious and gender politics that are so crucial to much of the plot. But it’s not just children who will need things explaining. If the only understanding of Saudi culture you have is heavy handed western satires (which was largely where my little knowledge of the background to the film came from) then your viewing experience will be greatly enhanced by educating yourself a little first. Invaluable in this respect is al-Mansour’s 2005 documentary Women Without Shadows, which is generously included as an extra on the excellent new Soda Pictures DVD release of Wadjda. This rough-and-ready 45 minute film examines women’s place in Saudi society by talking directly to the women themselves. Unlike the parodies we are used to, in which women are depicted across the board as beaten-down victims of tyrannical men, al-Mansour’s film reveals a greater complexity and charts the shifting climate from a comparatively more liberal era that is rarely acknowledged in western depictions of the culture to the current, more restrictive climate. The chief message of the documentary, that not all Saudi women are passive and that change must come from the resilience and determination of the women to make a better life for themselves, is also the key theme of Wadjda and it is advisable to watch Women Without Shadows prior to Wadjda for a richer viewing experience. The tragedy is that Wadjda would undoubtedly strike a chord with children in Saudi Arabia who will understand it through personal experience alone but, due to the country’s lack of a film industry or cinemas, few will get to see it.
To take Wadjda on its simplest terms, it is about an eleven year old girl who dreams of owning a bicycle so she can race against neighbourhood boy Abdullah, and who uses her resourcefulness and cunning to set about acquiring the money to buy it. This simple premise has ample mileage in it and the financial obstacle alone could provide enough dramatic tension to sustain a 90 minute film. But Wadjda adds extra obstacles, not least the fact that girls riding bicycles is frowned upon in Saudi society and Wadjda’s mother refuses to help her buy one. Wadjda’s rebellious spirit is also frowned upon by the strict headmistress of her school. When the school offers a large cash prize for the winner of a Qur’an recital competition, Wadjda’s new dedication to her religious studies alters their rocky relationship for the better. Meanwhile, Wadjda’s mother is distracted by her husband’s desire for the son she cannot give him, leading him to consider taking a second wife.
These storylines are skilfully interwoven by al-Mansour and build up into a fascinating combination of social commentary and strong storytelling. Wadjda is very much a film focused on women’s stories, with men largely being marginalized in the narrative, a pleasing reversal of the country’s attitudes. Wadjda is an instantly engaging central character and Waad Mohammed’s performance is brilliantly naturalistic, obviously drawing on both her director’s experiences and her own defiant spirit, which is visible in the 30 minute making-of documentary which is also included on the Soda Pictures DVD. This documentary also highlights how difficult it was to obtain the authenticity that makes Wadjda so impressively immersive. Among its many other pioneering achievements, Wadjda is the first film to be entirely shot in Saudi Arabia, but in order to do this the crew had to endure many interruptions and inconveniences, not least the fact that al-Mansour could not work in public with the male members of the crew and had to direct the outdoor scenes from inside a van, communicating with her actors by walkie-talkie. This set-up necessitated plenty of prior rehearsals, which accounts for the strong connection between the actors which results in so vivid and moving a depiction of the central mother-daughter relationship.
In a western society that is so resistant to both small scale storytelling and anything more than the most simplified depiction of other cultures, Wadjda might seem like a hard sell. Its critical popularity was never going to be reflected commercially but the relative success of the film is encouraging and Haifaa al-Mansour is a director from whom I can scarcely wait to see more. Wadjda embodies her desire to encourage a more critical look at Saudi culture so subtly that there is a legitimate fear that building on this might be to overegg the pudding. Then again, as both Women Without Shadows and Wadjda have taught me, there is far more complexity to Saudi Arabian society than I had previously bothered to discover and I anticipate that future films from this director could help me understand this fascinating subject more, while also being thoroughly entertaining and artistically impressive experiences in themselves. A tremendous debut.
Wadjda is released on DVD by Soda Pictures on 3rd February 2014. The extra features are the aforementioned 45 minute documentary Women Without Shadows and the half-hour Making of Wadjda featurette. Soda Picutres have put together a fantastic package here which comes highly recommended.