wadjda-posterWhen I was younger, I longed to be rich enough and important enough to have a private screening room, a lovely little movie theater of my own. Two weeks ago, that dream came true. I was all by myself in a small suburban cinema. So, why was I so disappointed?

Because the movie I was there to see deserved a larger audience. A much larger one.

Wadjda is the first feature film to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia (where movie houses are still prohibited), the first with an all-Saudi cast, and the first from Saudi Arabia to be submitted for an Academy Award. Even more groundbreaking, it’s the first film written and directed by a Saudi woman: Haifaa Al-Mansour. You might want to remember her name.

Al-Mansour, a Saudi native, is the eighth child of poet Abdul Rahman Mansour. With his encouragement, she was educated at the American University in Cairo and later attended film school in Sydney, Australia. Her husband is an American diplomat, and they currently reside in Bahrain. Although Al-Mansour had the cooperation of the Saudi government when she made Wadjda, she was not exempt from the strict limitations women there face. She directed the movie’s exterior shots from inside a van, using a walkie-talkie. It would not have been acceptable for a woman to work alongside—or, even worse, to supervise—men in public.

The delightful movie tells the story of 10-year old Wadjda (compelling newcomer Waad Mohammed), an independent young girl living with her mother in a conservative suburb of Riyadh. In classic coming-of-age tradition, Wadjda is on the brink. The exacting headmistress of her school (the striking, single-monikered Ahd) insists that she cover her head and trade in her Converse high tops for more humble, feminine footwear. Her father’s family is pressuring him to leave Wadjda and her mother (popular Saudi television actress Reem Abdullah), find a second wife, and produce a son. And soon, Wadjda will be prohibited from playing with her best friend, a sweet-natured neighbor boy named Abdullah.

Wadjda isn’t taking any of this lying down. In fact, as her world becomes more constrictive, her dreams of freedom manifest themselves in a specific, material obsession. She desperately covets a shiny green bicycle and she will do whatever it takes to raise the 800 riyals (about $210 U.S.) to buy it. A natural entrepreneur, she makes and sells bracelets and mix tapes, passes forbidden notes between older girls and boys, and even manipulates Abdullah into paying her to stop crying. Nevertheless, the bike seems hopelessly out of reach until Wadjda’s school announces a Koran recitation contest. Suffice it to say our determined heroine becomes very religious, very quickly.

Al-Mansour is not the first filmmaker to use a bicycle as a metaphor. From the American classic Breaking Away to the Iranian trilogy The Day I Became a Woman to last summer’s The Way Way Back, characters have pedaled their way to freedom for years. Wadjda faces added challenges, though. The cost of the bike aside, she is told over and over that riding is for boys, not girls. Her own mother asserts that she will lose her virginity, never marry or have children, a fate that carries much weight, given their family’s current circumstances.

The bike, and the movement and autonomy it implies, is also an interesting contrast to the enforced immobility of grown Saudi women. Wadjda’s mother works at a school three hours away. She is prohibited from driving, though, and must pay a mean-tempered chauffeur a significant portion of her salary. This and other examples of society’s repression of women appear throughout the film. Yet they are not in the foreground. The movie’s true story is more personal. Despite the robes and veils the women wear outside, they feel real, warm, contemporary, and utterly familiar inside their homes.

This is what surprised me most about Wadjda. As a Western woman, a liberal, and a feminist, I went to the movie expecting to be outraged. When an older girl is caught with a boy and the “religious police” are mentioned, I steeled myself for the worst. Similarly, when two students are accused of inappropriate (and sinful) contact, I expected some horrific punishment. But the first incident resulted in nothing more than a quickly arranged marriage and a lot of titillating gossip. The second led to a school assembly and an edict against holding hands or exchanging flowers.

In some ways, the women in Wadjda’s world take their limitations for granted, but they quietly rebel in private—a smart haircut, blue toenails, a sexy outfit under their robes. Some of the rules are so arbitrary they feel absurd. When one of Wadjda’s classmates is caught sharing photos of her wedding, she is reprimanded by a teacher. Pictures aren’t allowed at school. But, apparently, 11-year-old brides are.

In presenting these fine details and focusing on her characters rather than on a political agenda, Al-Mansour has created a perfect little movie that just happens to be set against an imperfect and deeply misogynistic society. The director doesn’t overtly condemn the system, and actually allows some of the beauty of the religion to shine forth. As Wadjda learns to chant verses of the Koran, she develops her own inner confidence along with her voice. A scene where Wadjda’s mother wakes her for dawn prayers is a quite lovely depiction of their faith—and faith in each other.

With its impressive list of “firsts” and its topical setting, Wadjda can justifiably be described as an important film. But it’s simultaneously more and less than that. It’s smaller and quieter than I expected—and even more affecting. Rather than diminish its message, the intimacy of the story makes it more powerful. Wadjda herself isn’t particularly outraged by her situation, although she often rolls her eyes at the hypocrisy and silliness of it all. She doesn’t feel helpless; in fact, she makes things happen.

Through her young and charming protagonist, Al-Mansour seems to be offering hope for the future. Change in Saudi Arabia will not come from activists; it will come from the Wadjdas.

 

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