Wadjda is first and foremost an important film. More than just the first movie ever filmed in Saudi Arabia – where cinema has been illegal under censorship laws since the 1980s – and the first feature film ever from a female Saudi Arabian director, Wadjda is actually quite a good film. Director Haifaa Al-Mansour braves the rocky shoals of creating a slyly counterculture work in a totalitarian epoch that bans women from driving, voting, and dressing as they like, crossing the finish line with saintly courage. With material on display that, like its central character, is consciously subversively and takes careful aim at the many forms of culturally-approved misogyny, Al-Mansour boldly promulgates material that defiantly flies in the face of the normative Saudi lifestyle and, for it, she deserves celebration.
Our heroine Wadjda – inspired both by Al-Mansour’s niece and her own childhood experiences – is a headstrong young girl, seemingly not aware of the vast limitations placed on her by society. She’s as spunky as a young Saudi girl can get, secretly rocking Chuck Taylors under the secrecy of her burka and jamming out to American Top 40 on Beats headphones. Her heart set on a buying a bicycle to race with her male friend, Wadjda turns to a Quran recitation contest to win the money to buy her prized possession.
However innocent her quest to obtain a bike may seem, roadblocks surround her. Even her loving family and schoolteachers tell her that bicycles are strictly forbidden for girls. For something as simple as riding a bicycle, Wajdja could face lifelong consequences, they instruct. Blind to the “ought to’s” of gender, Wajdja either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care. To Wajdja, that bike is all the freedom a girl could want, and she wants what she wants so no silly cultural norm is going to stop her. Proving that little is more beautiful than the arrogant ignorance of a child, Wajdja sees gender walls as something she can conquer. We allow ourselves to root for her, suppressing our adult understanding of slim odds. As it goes, the house always wins.
Wadjda’s ensuing journey throughout her Saudi Arabian landscape is hopeful and yet deeply tragic. As a harbinger of a new generation of progressive youth, Waad Mohammed is magnetic as Wadjda. Shuffling to strip the invisible weights societal expectations have saddled on her – omnipresent reminders of her lower status within a male-dominated society – Wadjda proceeds with a smile.
While playing outside the schoolyard gates, a female teacher scolds Wadjda, “Women’s voices shouldn’t be heard by men outside.” I almost gagged. Cultural sensitivity be damned, that kind of senseless, patriarchal censorship is sickening and Al-Mansour begs you to agree. No young girl should be muzzled like a criminal, simply because of her gender. A culture steeped in tradition, promoting uniformity and encouraging submission is a culture at standstill, and Al-Mansour does a masterful job at conveying this pejorative truth.
Moving into the third act, Wajdja faces its biggest problem: colliding with a glass ceiling of touchiness. En route to a whopping defamation of culture, Al-Mansour veers. Admitting that her original vision was much bleaker, Al-Mansour has skirted around some of the most gory details and settles with a bit of a storybook version. Grey skies are painted bright blue as heartbreaking circumstances are touched up with happy endings. We get a sample of the true injustices but we never experience the full flavor. As grim circumstances turn towards a brighter tomorrow, Al-Mansour gently raps, leaving the true lambasting for another time, another place, another artist.
This is the issue of being part and parcel of the society you’re examining, you don’t have the degree of separation to allow for unwavering freedom in storytelling. Still deeply ingrained within it, perhaps to the point of being a hostage, Al-Mansour escapes into Wadjda, feeling the perpetual pain of a woman suffocated by medieval beliefs that still rain supreme. But Wadjda doesn’t quite play like the cry for help, as it easily could have. It’s more of a gentle nudge towards feminism; a reminder of its ever-increasing importance in progressive society.
Sure to be a healthy contender at this year’s Oscars for Best Foreign Language film, Wajdja earns its place on the roster with strong storytelling and historical significance. Giving us a peek at discrimination through the eyes of a child, Wajdja tenderly plays at our heart strings, reinforcing the magnificent blessing of our unadulterated freedom.