Editor’s Note: Dr. Jane Alexander Stewart is on vacation. Guest writer True Shields reviews Wadjda, the first film from a woman director shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, for October’s Cinemashrink and Newtopia’s Second Anniversary issue.
Directed and Written by Hafiaa al-Mansour
Starring Waad Mohammed, Reem Abdullah, and Abdulrahman al-Guhani
It’s not Saudi music that plays in 11-year-old Wadjda’s room — it’s the American single “Tongue Tied” by Grouplove. She doesn’t slip on the traditional black flats under her abaya — she wears black-and-white high-top Chucks. And unlike most of the other girls at school, who comply when stern school principal Ms. Hussa tells them to cover their heads, Wadjda’s frazzled hair bounces as she runs through the streets. Most unladylike, everyone seems to agree. Better to crowd into a driver’s red GMC truck to escape the prying eyes of men than to drive yourself or ride a bicycle.
The title character of Wadjda (first-timer Waad Mohammed) seems affected more than most by the profusion of Western influence in Riyadh, the sand swept capital of Saudi Arabia. Girls, her mother (Reem Abdullah) informs her, hide from men in public spaces, cover their faces and eat leftovers once the men of the family are finished eating in another room, as mandated by the Quran. Wadjda complies begrudgingly, but displays a youthful defiance at odds with the strictures of Muslim life. The item that crystallizes her desire to wriggle free from all these rules is a bright, green bicycle that costs 800 riyals — about $215 US. In order to raise the funds, she stashes bills in a box on her desk, sells lanyards to girls at school and, most consequentially, runs a love note to a teenage Saudi boy on behalf of an older girl.
This last act earns Wadjda the enmity of the salty Ms. Hussa (Ahd Kamel), who doesn’t screw around. She confiscates her lanyards and threatens Wadjda with expulsion unless she stops hustling and starts to clean up her act. Without a reliable means of scraping together money for her bike, Wadjda can only sigh wistfully as her friend Abdullah (impish little Abdullrahman Algohani) rides his own bike off into the beige-gray horizon, teasing her. Of course, Abdullah is Wadjda’s only true friend in the film. At first the duo meet in parking lots and construction yards, where workers gesture from nearby buildings and make suggestive comments about Wadjda’s “little apples.” Soon Wadjda begins to invite Abdullah up onto her roof, where she practices riding his bicycle.
But how to buy her own bicycle? The storeowner is gracious enough to hold onto it for the fiery girl, but the money simply doesn’t flow fast enough. Then, a golden opportunity presents itself, both to extricate Wadjda from the jam with Ms. Hussa and to earn the money for her bicycle — a Quran recitation contest, with a top prize of 1,000 riyals. It is clear from the start that Wadjda’s intentions are dishonest in the eyes of God. Girls are typically not allowed to ride bicycles, and while Wadjda is clever enough to keep her desire from Ms. Hussa, she pesters her mother about the green bike in the hopes that she’ll cave. Since mom is dealing with issues of her own — joblessness, the impending polygamist marriage of Wadjda’s father (Sultan Al Assaf) to another woman, a spat with her driver, Iqbal — Wadjda decides to plunge headlong into the contest despite poor reading skills, going so far as to spend 50 hard-earned riyals on a Quran video game that teaches her scripture. When Abdullah remarks that a neighbor’s son blew himself up for 70 virgins, Wadjda retorts that, should she blow herself up, the result would be different. “Boom! Seventy bikes!”
Soon, Wadjda begins to shine, even as other classmates falter. Caught painting their nails, looking at soccer magazines and possibly touching each other, two girls are chastised in front of the entire school, an event that highlights the oppressive expectations levied on such young girls. Despite their youth and ignorance, though, these girls are smarter than they appear. Throughout the film women rely on gossip and hearsay as a means of maintaining some semblance of control over their lives, hoarding the information as if it were money. While the film does well to portray the shifting roles of women in Saudi society, the notion of women’s public invisibility is still tied up in ideas of respect and literalism w/r/t the Quran (1). The very protection and concealment that renders women powerless also serves as a sign of ingrained cultural adoration rooted in the holiest of traditions — a fatal link.
So when Wadjda, inspired by her mother’s advice, manages to impress the judges with a heartfelt reading of the Quran, she blurts out her desire to use the prize money to purchase the green bike. The room falls silent at her immense faux pas. “Your stupid behavior,” Ms. Hussa scolds, “will haunt you forever.” Wadjda retorts, “You mean like your handsome thief,” referring to a rumor that a cuckolding man has been visiting Ms. Hussa at night. The prize money is to be donated to Pakistan, and it appears that the bike has slipped from Wadjda’s grasp.
But in the end Wadjda’s determined progressivism wins out. Her father remarries, sure, but her mother pulls aside the rooftop door to reveal the gleaming green bicycle, purchased specially for a daughter who has more than proven herself. The next day she finds Abdullah, who voices his desire to marry the impetuous Wadjda when they are older (2). They race down a broad avenue, back into a sky the same color as the dunes, and Wadjda bursts ahead, proclaiming, “Catch me if you can!” She wins the race handily, with a smile stretching across her face.
The film’s meandering, picaresque structure allows for a sweeping panorama of the repression Saudi women deal with on a daily basis. There is something decidedly anti-mythic about the whole thing, a dedication to a semi-journalistic, ethnographic point of view that is held together loosely by Wadjda’s desire to ride alongside her friend Abdullah. That the film was directed by Saudi Arabia’s first woman director, and that the story is loosely based on her own comparatively reckless childhood, attests to the power of this straightforward, yet not always brisk narrative. We peer into the living rooms and construction yards of Riyadh to discover just as many similarities as cultural hallmarks.
During an argument with Wadjda’s mother, her father remarks that, should he remain with her and take a new wife, he would have to support two wives. At my screening, the audience laughed. How ridiculous! But when Wadjda’s mother sits despondent in the house after serving a meal to her husband and his friends, we see just how serious the matter is, and we perceive, on some small level, the invisible bars that hem her in and the gears clicking in her head. She will buy Wadjda that bicycle, consequences be damned, and her daughter will race to the edge of the world.
- According to William T. Vollmann, from Poor People, 2007. Invisibility is classified as one of the “Dimensions of Poverty” Vollmann discusses, with Taliban Afghanistan and the Muslim world at large as primary subjects. What could subvert this invisibility, Vollmann suggests, are begging, deformation and other external signs of poverty.
- Abdullah’s character is remarkable in his own separation from strict tradition. His idea of a prank is to pull Wadjda’s headscarf off, and he defies convention by indulging her desire to learn how to ride a bicycle. The marriage proposal, then, seems not to be a hallmark of a rigid society but an earnest, youthful proclamation of love.