Wadjda: A Simple Story in a Complex World

Wadjda, written and directed by the Saudi Arabian filmmaker Haifaa al-Mansour, is not only a carefully directed film, but it’s also an important film that examines with subtle eloquence the realities of daily life for women in an oppressive male-chauvinistic society. It is a simple story set in a complex world which surrounds the ten-year-old Wadjda, played with delightful charm by Waad Mohammed; she’s sarcastic without being annoying, street savvy, determined, wonderfully unconventional, and heroically rebellious.  In the same vein as Italy’s neo-realist masterpiece The Bicycle Thieves, the movie explores the difficulties of daily life in Saudi Arabia by following Wadjda as she enrolls in a school competition. For the contest she has to memorize, recite, and answer questions on the Koran, a subject that doesn’t rank high on her list of interests. Her aim is to win prize money in order to buy a green bicycle and eventually race her neighborhood friend Abdullah.
I could be describing any number of coming–of-age films, any number of films about a child who yearns for something more: in Wadjda’s case, it’s a bicycle, a simple object of desire. We’ve seen this in cinema many times before: a child who is different from the rest discovers something that they must have, something that seems unattainable, something that the grown-ups don’t want them to have.
“Respectable girls do not cycle in Saudi Arabia” is her mother’s response when Wadjda tells her that she wants to buy the green bike that she saw in a nearby store. Unconventional Wadjda lives in a world where women are forbidden to ride bicycles.  The religiously conservative world that she and her mother (Reem Abdullah) inhabit is not shown as tragic, but rather it’s shown as the reality that exists—this is daily life in Riyadh, this is the way things currently are. Viewing Wadjda’s world is a sobering and yet confusing experience for Western viewers.  The film doesn’t manipulate the viewer’s emotions in the typical Hollywood fashion with swelling, sentimental music, actors’ tears, and long lyrical tracking shots. The director keeps things simple and thereby earns the trust of her audience.
Wadjda is not a contrived, didactic, message film by any means.  It’s much more than a story about oppressed women; oppression is merely the diegesis of the film, the actuality of the world that they inhabit. These women are, in a sense, doomed to a life of being seen (although covered) but not heard. The unfortunate ever-present condition of their lives is secondary to the film’s engaging story and likeable, honestly portrayed characters.  Through Wadjda’s observations and questioning eyes, we observe the details of daily life: women must lower their voices in the kitchen so the men in the living room won’t hear them; they must hide themselves in order not to be visible to nearby construction workers.  Al-Mansour has invited Western audiences to penetrate this chauvinistic world through Wadjda’s eyes, as her observations enlighten her to the subtle injustices surrounding her. Through her coming-of-age awareness, these social conditions seem odd, heartbreaking, and completely absurd. There is a sense of rebellious satisfaction as we watch Wadjda refuse to wear her veil.  Is she being careless or defiant?  I’d like to think the latter, but rather it’s a mix of both, coupled with her merely being a ten-year-old child. But it’s clear to those around her (mother, teachers) that her childish behavior will soon be less forgivable as she grows into womanhood. Will she be married off to an older man like her classmate who, as we learn in a scene during her Koran club meeting, was married off to a twenty-year-old man?

Men, however, are not the enemy here; they are not shown as villains; they are merely participants in the culture in which they inhabit. Her father (Sultan al Assaf) is kind, warm, and strikingly handsome; he is always smiling; he clearly adores his daughter. Despite the fact that he is gone for weeks at a time, and that he’s making plans to take a second wife, he seems to care about his wife and child and treats them with respect. This is hard to accept, but again, he is not a cruel or abusive man; he’s merely operating within the cultural norms of his society.  Wadjada’s young neighbor friend, Abdullah (Abdullrahman al Gohani)—a boy—clearly adores and admires Wadjda’s spirit.  Abdullah innocently accepts her as his equal. It is that sense of equality that we hope he will maintain as he matures into manhood rather than succumbing to the indoctrinations of male-dominated oppression.  Abdullah shows us that systematic oppression is learned. He stands as a charm for the possibility and the hope of  just equality.
Wadjda is wonderfully layered with doubles. Wadjda doubles for the film’s director, a woman with a desire to direct a film in a culture where women cannot vote, drive a car; where movie theaters are banned, and of course, where women are forbidden to direct. Haifaa al-Mansour, like Wadjda, is resolute in her determination to circumvent the ever-present draconian rules and make her film, to ride her green bicycle, if you will.  She does it with subtle charm and without moralizing; she entertains us, returning us to a time when we too yearned for something that seemed impossible to have. These universal wants are borderless, allowing people of all cultures to relate to them.  Abdullah doubles, in an inverse manner, for Wadjda’s father. His innocence and unconditional support of Wadjda’s desire to ride a bike satisfies the audience’s longing for Wadjda’s emancipation from oppression—or simply a future husband that will be devoted to her as an equal. The headmistress, Ms. Hussa (Ahd Kamel), although firm and tough in character, is submissive to her religious and societal oppression.  She doubles—again inversely—for what Wadjda could become. Finally, the green bicycle doubles for al-Mansour’s camera: like the director who must make her film in hiding (she had to direct the film from a van while using walkie-talkies), Wadaja must learn to ride her bike in hiding on the rooftop while, at the same time, Abdullah is free to wildly ride his bike on the open streets. The bike is a trajectory of freedom for Wadjda, for  al-Mansour, and for Saudi women. Without being trite or sentimental, the green bike is an escape from oppression.

The important theme of oppression is authentic as it comes from a reliable source.  After all, this movie is not some Western director’s altruistic message film; it’s a movie made by a woman from a country that forbids her to direct, forbids her to talk too loudly around men, forbids her to be seen, and she is a Saudi Arabian, Muslim, woman but more important, Haifaa al-Mansour is a director with a strong voice and a solid vision who made a delicate film about a girl who wants to ride her bike wildly on the open street.

–John David West

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