Mark Reviews Movies



3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Haifaa Al Mansour

Cast: Waad Mohammed, Reem Abdullah, Abdullrahman Al Gohani, Ahd, Sultan Al Assaf

MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic elements, brief mild language and smoking)

Running Time: 1:38

Release Date: 9/13/13 (limited); 9/20/13 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 20, 2013

Wadjda is an act of rebellion in ways that only fully become clear when one takes into consideration some background information about the film. This is the first feature-length film from Saudi Arabia to be directed by a Saudi woman. It was shot entirely on location in the country (also a first), which is notorious for its systemic discrimination against women and where, incidentally, it was impossible to even see a movie in a theater for over two decades after the government shut down movie theaters throughout the country for religious reasons (There are some exceptions now).

The film, then, is writer/director Haifaa Al Mansour's very polite gesture of disdain toward this system that keeps women as second-class citizens, using the medium that was denied for so long to Saudi artists and citizens. What's most striking about Wadjda is its tone of respectful derision. It never overtly comes out against a government and culture that dictates the lives of women based on a conservative, fundamentalist view of the way religion should rule over every aspect of a person's life, yet the message is still crystal clear through the story of a young girl and her mother who have very different opinions on religious tradition made societal law.

The girl is Wadjda (Waad Mohammed in a delightfully natural and playful debut performance), a precocious 10-year-old who, more than anything, wants a bicycle so that she can race her best friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), a boy who lives in her neighborhood in the city of Riyadh. A girl on a bike, her mother (Reem Abdullah) points out, is frowned upon by society.

Her mother believes this tradition, which becomes quite clear after she catches her daughter secretly learning to ride Abdullah's bike on the roof of their apartment building. After being caught, Wadjda falls off and cries out that she's bleeding; her mother's immediate thought is that the girl may have accidentally lost her virginity in the accident. Such is the extent of the mother's unquestioning belief in customs, based on whatever information she's been taught over the years, no matter how silly (not to her, obviously) it may be.

We get a clear picture of the way these beliefs are instilled on young girls like Wadjda. It's not only her family, which is in a bit of disarray as her father (Sultan Al Assaf) might be taking a second wife, but also her all-girls school, where the headmistress Ms. Hussa (Ahd) seems to all the students to be an omniscient force, ready to punish any student who might break any rules and always there if and when she does. Wadjda is on the headmistress' list of students to watch. She wears sneakers to school and often shows up without her headscarf. When the other girls leave the courtyard because they can see men across the way (If they can see the men, the men can see them, the girls argue), she stays behind to keep playing.

It only gets worse for Wadjda after she decides she's going to buy a bike. The only thing stopping her is a lack of money, so she comes up with various schemes, like making and selling yarn bracelets in the colors of her classmates' favorite soccer teams, and taking advantage of any opportunity in which someone might give her money, such as when one of the teachers wants to sneak away with her boyfriend (Our entrepreneuring heroine gets money from both parties through some innocent deception). Suddenly, Wadjda goes from a troublemaker to a lost cause in Ms. Hussa's eyes. She warns the girl that she might be expelled. Her goal seems lost, but then she learns that the school is holding a Quran competition. The prize money is more than enough to buy the bike of her dreams.

Here's where the film, which already presents its heroine as an admirable figure despite her constant breaking of the rules, really becomes subversive. Wadjda sets out to become an expert on the Quran—signing up for a club that studies the text and buying a video game that quizzes the player on it. We almost expect that Al Mansour is leading her protagonist down a path where some of the book will sink in, but then we get flashes of her ploy, like when Wadjda's teacher says that her new student is blessed because she's trying so hard to learn. Our little heroine can't help but flash an impish smile that she's fooled so many (The joke, it turns out, has always been on her).

Throughout the film is an undercurrent of social criticism that solidifies Wadjda's righteous quest. There's a brief but disturbing moment when she, waiting on Abdullah, stands in a construction site, and a worker calls down to her to come up to him so that he might fondle her. Another scene has Wadjda and Abdullah passing the funeral of a local man who perpetrated a suicide-bomb attack, and Wadjda—completely, admirably naïve—can't help but mock the concept of supposed martyrdom. Then there's a sequence of events in which two older girls are accused of being indecent with each other, and Wadjda, called in as a witness by the headmistress, finds herself unable to tell the truth that no such thing had happened, lest she upset Ms. Hussa, and unable to lie, lest she condemn her classmates in order to get in Ms. Hussa's good graces.

It's a difficult, nearly impossible world for women in Saudi Arabia, Wadjda argues. It is only through solidarity—whether it's Wadjda's subtle compromise to hurt neither herself nor the two girls or how her mother gradually learns that even the deepest desire of her own heart is not sacred when confronted with tradition—that survival and maybe even change are possible.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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