' ' Cinema Romantico: Wadjda

Wednesday, January 22, 2014


“A woman’s voice is her nakedness.” So says a school administrator to our 13 year old heroine, Wadjda. It seems enough that polite Saudi Arabian society calls for women to cloak their bodies in black but no, speaking outdoors for Wadjda is the equivalent of Vanessa Hudgens in “Spring Breakers” fondling James Franco's glock. This is difficult for Wadjda to accept and so, mostly, she doesn’t. She paints her fingernails, rocks black Converse, lets her abaya fall open to show off her skinny jeans, allows the hijab to fall back so all can see her long black hair. In her spare time she crafts mix tapes of rock ‘n’ roll and scams friends at school for a little extra spending cash. But don’t presume Wadjda to see a rebel without a cause. To the contrary, her cause is a shiny new green bike, never mind that women in Saudi Arabian society forbidden from riding bikes for fear their virtue be sullied.

Well, people in Saudia Arabia aren’t supposed to make movies either. Writer and Director Haifaa Al Mansour’s “Wadjda” is the first feature ever filmed within Saudi Arabia, a fact that I dare say might boggle the mind of an American, seeing as how our country is filled with people who, if the mood should strike, can try and make films on their iPhones. Mansour was granted permission to shoot her debut, but still, per reports, had to film covertly. After all, if a woman’s voice is her nakedness and this film is Mansour’s voice….. Knowing this allows for “Wadjda” to work on multiple levels but, of course, first and foremost, the film needs to work on its own level, which is to say it needs to ably tell its story. Which it does, employing a very straight-forward narrative to strong effect.

The description of “Wadjda’s” protagonist probably makes her sound like a caricature of a disenfranchised youth, the western world’s attempt to fashion a Kathleen Hanna of Riyadh. But the performance of Waad Mohammed resists the typical. It is her first acting role and, thus, likely she is simply playing a version of herself, but that is not to suggest she does not bring memorable flourishes to the part. For instance, she has this distinctive double-take, throwing her head back and sizing up her varying companions, calling shenanigans with her expression. It’s the funniest thing in the movie. What she does above all, however, is craft a young girl raised to be soft-spoken and polite who acts out not so much by being obnoxious and disrespectful, but by being thoughtful and forthright. That is, the performance and screenplay do not betray Wadjda’s upbringing nor sphere of influence, but neither do they betray her core attitude. And the film is remarkably effortless in conveying this with the simplest of tones and plot maneuverings.

Wadjda’s journey is mirrored by her mother’s (Reem Abdullah), who imparts the value of Islamic tradition on her daughter but also seems secretly, and occasionally openly, proud of her daughter’s independence. Indeed, Islamic tradition means that her husband (Sultan Al Assaf), pining for a son, may take a second wife, thereby fracturing this family. That subplot painfully underscores how aloof both mother and daughter seem to feel in this society. The script feints toward Wadjda eventually embracing that society and its strict religion, only to undercut it in a moment that may be “expected” but is nonetheless triumphant. It is a moment, I must imagine, open to controversy in Mansour’s country, employing religion as a means to an end. And it speaks to both the character's resourcefulness.

This is not my culture and these are not my values. I respect everyone’s beliefs, whatever they may be, so long as those beliefs are true to what they feel in their heart and not simply impressed upon them with such ferocity that they feel they have no choice. The end of “Wadjda” is a moment earned in more ways than one, and as heartbreaking as it is delightful. You are so happy for little Wadjda in that moment, but simultaneously so sad. The closing shots are set in such a way to make it appear as if she has reached the edge of the world as she knows it. I kind of wished she would have just keep right on going.


Nikhat said...

I really, really adored this movie. Coming from a similar kind of culture and belief system, which isn't as extreme but nothing much in the film really surprises me either, I just kept wishing that I was in an audience while watching this movie so that I could stand up and applaud. And I think I take a more hopeful view when it comes to the ending.

What both Mansour and Wadjda have done is remarkable. Most inspirational movie of 2013 for me.

Anonymous said...

I saw the ending in a slightly different light, more hopeful about the future of Wadjda. Eventually she gained the support of her mother as well as the bike. She's heading out for something. The world awaits her.

But I was infuriated and saddened to see the oppression that women and girls in this culture lives under. I'm far less forgiving than you are in this matter.
The leaf on the tree, the note with her name that doesn't count. This made me burst into angry tears. This is no less upsetting than the slavery we see in 12 years a slave. And it exists here and now. We need to do everything we can to support them in their struggle to get rid of their chains.

Nick Prigge said...

Nikhat! Jessica! Thank you both so much for the lovingly honest comments!

I understand what you're both saying about the ending, and I like the way you put it, Jessica, to say "The world awaits her." I can see that reading too. I guess my reading of it kind of comes from the same thing you're saying, the oppression the women of this culture have to endure.

I always hesitate to bring the word 'important' into film critiques, but this really is an important film, a window into that culture, to understand their plight.