Wadjda – a Film Review

Lincoln Green 

Image © Arria Belli

[The review contains plot details.]

The child’s perspective provides the film director with an opportunity to observe and implicitly comment on a situation with an unencultured and potentially critical eye.  This device has been used in films such as Offside (2006, dir. Jafar Panahi ) where an Iranian girl attempts to watch a World Cup qualifying match between Iran and Bahrain, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, dir. Guillermo del Toro) where fantasy plays alongside the horrors of war in 1944 fascist Spain, and numerous others.

In Wadjda (2012) the female writer and director Haifaa Al Mansour employs this technique to comment on cultural norms, particularly those affecting women, in present day Saudi Arabia.  The film is the first official Saudi Arabian submission to the Oscars and the first feature length film made by a Saudi female.  To avoid problems when filming with mixed genders Al Mansour had to direct some outdoor scenes via radio when concealed in the back of a van.  

Wadjda is an 11 year old girl from a middle class household who wants a bicycle in order to play with her neighbour, Abdullah.  She attempts to raise the money by making and selling wristbands for football supporters, and ultimately by entering a school competition based on learning and reciting extracts from the Qur’an.

Through this story Al Mansour turns a critical eye towards Saudi orthodoxy:  the discrepancies between male and female access to transport (Wadjda’s mother loses her driver whilst a wealthy young man drives an expensive 4×4 vehicle), the role of the wife as domestic servant (the mother prepares food and notifies her husband’s male friends that it is ready by knocking on and then waiting outside her own dining room door), female inheritance (Wadjda’s addition of her own name to an image of her father’s family tree is torn down).

Larger social and political issues are also apparent within the film and provide the viewer with a sense of observing real truths about what for many is a society outside their experience.  The place of immigrants and their insecurity, the suggestions of political patronage and the power afforded to those within its sphere, the local impact of construction projects, the significance of tribal loyalties, the centrality of the Qur’an and its interpretation as guide to conduct: all these issues receive consideration.

Without labouring the point, the director/writer also hints with some finesse at underlying tensions which exist in this society.  The respect afforded to women who cover their faces is undercut by casual and offensive sexist remarks at a building site.  Public humiliation in a school assembly of two girls who affectionately varnish each other’s toes is implicitly contrasted with the head teacher’s alleged visitation from a lover.  A newly married 10 year-old girl is criticised … for bringing photographs of the wedding into school.  A family friend shocks Wadjda’s mother by working, head uncovered, alongside men in a hospital.  Wadjda’s largely absent but loving father (he works in the oil industry) breaks her mother’s heart by taking a second wife.

The child actors, Waad Mohammed who plays Wadjda, and Abdullrahman Al Gohani who plays her friend Abdullah are a delight: utterly natural and with a zest for life as they are channelled towards their adult roles.  The tone of the film is affectionate and by no means universally critical.  It opens a door on everyday life in one sector of Saudi society.  The exposition of attitudes to women will shock many.  The chanted recitation of Qur’anic verses will delight some.  The final scene shows Wadjda pausing on her bicycle at a busy dual carriage way.  Is she at the threshold of a mobile and participative role exemplified by the rapidly developing infrastructure of this wealthy country, or is she halted in her progress by the inattentive inertia of orthodox male-centric cultural, financial and religious norms?  Abdullah is seen earlier tearing off Wadjda’s headscarf.  If his wish to marry Wadjda is fulfilled, would the adult Abdullah be so willing to flout cultural convention?  The film can be strongly recommended as both entertainment and as an insightful review of ways in which orthodox views are challenged by and respond to rapid social change.

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