The Middle Eastern drama Wadjda feels especially poignant, coming out as it does mere weeks after 16-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai (targeted for assassination by the Taliban for promoting education) lost out on a Nobel Peace Prize. Wadjda is reportedly the first film shot entirely within Saudi Arabia—which is something of a feat considering movie theaters were banned as “un-Islamic” by the country’s religious conservatives back in the ’80s. It’s also directed by a first-time female director, Haifaa al-Mansour, who wasn’t permitted to mix with the male members of her crew. (She hid in a van and communicated with them via walkie-talkie.) Plus its topic—about young girls and education—flies directly in the face of Islamic revivalism. The film’s very existence is something of a watershed.
The film introduces us to 12-year-old Wadjda (the remarkable Waad Mohammed), a seemingly ordinary schoolgirl in a middle-class Saudi family. Wadjda likes making mixtapes and wearing her ratty Chuck Taylor high tops. She doesn’t like memorizing passages from the Koran or wearing a head scarf. It’s not that she’s some sort of crazy radical. In America (or just about any other country), she’d be a perfectly normal tween. But in ultraconservative Saudi Arabia, she sticks out like a sore thumb.
Around this character al-Mansour has crafted a deceptively simple parable about modern-day Middle Eastern gender politics. By telling the story from a female perspective and by dwelling on ordinary, day-to-day details of life in today’s Middle East, she’s crafted an eye-opening narrative. It’s not that our main character is a troublemaker. She’s just trying to figure out who and what she is—like any other preteen. She’s not a bad Muslim either. But she can’t comprehend the lack of parity in her country’s (unofficial) religious laws. Wadjda has a dream, you see, and it has nothing to do with the arranged marriages to which her young classmates are already being subjected. No, she dreams of buying a certain green bicycle so she can race against her next-door neighbor Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani). Abdullah is a nice boy who occasionally chases Wadjda around the neighborhood and snatches her scarves—which in 12-year-old lingo means he likes her. And the feeling is probably mutual.
Wadjda is mostly being raised by her mother, a strong, seemingly modern woman who nonetheless toes the line when it comes to religion. Dad works out of town and drops by once or twice a month to visit the family. He’s considering bagging himself a second wife—mostly because Wadjda’s mom is now infertile and was only able to give him a useless daughter. Left to her own devices most of the time, Wadjda has developed into an enterprising little hustler. She sells friendship bracelets at school and does whatever she can to earn the money for her prized bicycle. Unfortunately no one around her supports her dream. Woman aren’t supposed to ride bicycles in Saudi Arabia. Hell, they aren’t supposed to talk in public.
Al-Monsour’s sly script finds subtle, non-preachy ways of explaining exactly how things work in conservative Islamic nations. Wadjda’s mother, for example, is obliged to hire herself a driver to get around town. (Female drivers being frowned upon ... and frequently beaten in the streets by fundamentalist Muslim enforcers). One day Wadjda’s mother gets into a fight with her driver. He wants her to show up on his schedule and doesn’t feel he should wait around while she shops. Despite the fact that he’s a paid employee and she’s the boss, he’s a man and is therefore allowed to order her around.
The main thread of the story, however, follows Wadjda. Deciding maybe it’s easier to swim with the tide, she joins her school’s religious club. Much to her teacher’s delight, she offers to enter the school’s Koran-memorization competition. But Wadjda’s got her own ulterior motives. She could be one of the most admirably determined little girl protagonists since Aboriginal firebrand Paikea in 2002’s Whale Rider.
Wadjda is an important reminder that—despite the homogenous “foreign” mobs we see depicted on the evening news—human beings are really quite different in their own homes and behind closed doors. This is ultimately a cheerful, hopeful film that firmly believes people are individuals and can chart their own paths in life if they really want. Realistically Wadjda probably sugarcoats a lot of the problems in Saudi Arabia. Undoubtedly things are improving, but happy endings are probably harder to come by. Hopefully conditions for women will continue to improve in the Middle East. Haifaa al-Mansour’s film is certainly a step in the right direction. Here’s hoping her boundary-pushing, deeply humanistic film opens eyes in her homeland and beyond.