Wadjda made me feel overwhelming ignorant about Saudi Arabian society as it relates to women. Going into the movie, my understanding extended as far as “Women are treated horribly in Muslim theocracies.” It’s a broad evaluation, and while it’s not wrong, it’s a disservice to overlook the details. The beauty of Wadjda is that it’s always observing these details but never losing sight of its plucky, endearing protagonist. Lead by a terrific performance from young actress Waad Mohammed, director Haifaa al-Mansour has directed a minor miracle of a movie. The fact that it even exists is remarkable, but rather than resting on the laurels of its creation, we get an inside look that goes beyond a culture curiosity.
Wadjda (Mohammed) desperately wants a bicycle so she can race her friend Abudullah (Abdullrahman Algohani), but not only does she lack the money to buy it, a woman riding a bike is frowned upon. Her home life is also rocky as her mother (Reem Abdullah) struggles to keep a job since she needs a male driver to get there, and her husband (Sultan Al Assaf) is looking to marry a second wife so he can have a son. Since her mother refuses to buy the bike, Wadjda enters her school’s Koran necessitation competition so she can get the bicycle herself.
The film is a wonderful example of illustration by contrast. Al-Mansour quickly establishes Wadjda as a rebel with a shot of her sneakers with purple laces, and even though the young girl is a part of a drastically differnt culture, she’s easy to relate to. Based on pre-conceived notions, it’s almost too difficult to believe that a girl with such an individualistic personality could function in this world. But every society, no matter how repressive, has its outsiders. Nevertheless, I always felt an underlying fear that she would be harmed.
And such harm could lie in her future. Through her mother as well as Wadjda’s teachers, we see how women accept such opression as a matter of life. To American society—where we prize individuality as one of our most important values—it’s odd to not only see women lose that individuality, but unquestionably accept it. Al-Mansour doesn’t need to show us brutality towards women who step out of line, because we are aware of the consequences. We would fear for and pity Wadjda if she weren’t so buoyant and charmingly defiant.
Mohammed is astounding. Her performance is reminiscent of Quvenzhané Wallis from last year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. There’s no self-consciousness, but plenty of nuance. There’s maturity, but not so much that we forget we’re watching a child. She is the heart of the picture, and it’s so much fun watching her hustle for every riyal she needs to get her bike. At one point, a classmate asks her to deliver a message to man, and Wadjda has no hesitation in asking for some compensation from the guy and does so with a big smirk on her face. Although Al-Mansour sometimes goes dangerously close to making Wadjda a Mary Sue, there’s enough restraint from Mohammed and the direction making sure the film is observational rather than a critique.
Granted, part of that approach is from the nature of the production since part of the money came from a Saudi prince’s company, and there’s no way al-Mansour was going to create blatantly negative portrayal of men. However, that avoidance is rarely apparent since women are front and center of the movie. Even Wadjda’s father trying to find a new wife comes off as matter-of-fact rather than a biting critique of breaking up his family for his own needs. I assume (and I stress “assume” because even after seeing this movie, I can’t speak with anything close to authority on Saudi society) that if Saudi audiences were to watch this (and they can’t because there are no movie theaters) that behavior would be viewed as perfectly normal. It’s a neorealist picture, and to us it’s an insightful look at an unfamiliar culture, but to that culture, it would just be a simple story about a girl who wants a bicycle. Perhaps a girl wanting a bicycle would be controversial, but I’d be shocked if it were viewed as inflammatory or revelatory.
Regardless of the culture that watches it, Wadjda is a very sweet and relatable story. It’s the surroundings that change the context and provide the rewarding experience. Al-Mansour isn’t trying to educate or even advocate beyond a celebration of independence, and even that is somewhat daring. However, there is no clear agenda, and al-Mansour wisely lets her homeland and upbringing do the talking. There are limits to the film’s insights, but by going small, Wadjda manages to be fascinating and captivating portrait of familiar girl in a strange culture.