Yesterday I had the great pleasure of heading down to the Angelika Film Center (my first time!) to see the film Wadjda, director Haifaa Mansour’s debut full-length feature film and the first feature film shot on location in Saudi Arabia. With superb acting and brilliantly shot scenes depicting Riyadh, as well as an inspirational plot involving an 11-year old girl who wants to buy a bike, the film should have been an uplifting movie. And although the ending is still joyous, all I could think about on the subway ride home, and now still, was the plight of Saudi women.
I do believe that Wadjda was not, as a film, meant to come across as tragic, nor did Mansour necessarily mean for it to be a biting commentary on Saudi social life. But I ultimately spent the entire movie scoffing and at times mumbling verbal expletives under my breath at the characters. I almost wanted to leave, because I felt the pain was too much. Wadjda, our protagonist (played by Waad Mohammed), is free-spirited and tomboyish (or maybe just normal) in a land where girls and boys are so clearly defined, and she suffers for that, primarily at school.
The outside world is familiar with the treatment of Saudi women at the hands of men, and particularly by the rules established by the government via the ruling Wahhabi religious sect. Yet it was the female characters in Wadjda which came off as most sadistic, most of all Ms. Houssa, the severely pretty and stiff principal at Wadjda’s all-girls school who has a stick up her ass. Ms. Houssa busts Wadjda for selling mix tapes (I guess CDs haven’t found their way to Saudi Arabia yet, even if Xbox and Who Wants to be a Millionaire-style Qu’ran quiz cames have) and football bracelets to the girls for cash. She also questions Wadjda about two older girls who she suspects are lesbians (who she publicly shames in front of the entire school). Ms Houssa is strict about not letting any men see the girls, even from a distant rooftop (which other little girls uphold as well), and she insists on abayas and face coverings, which I can’t fathom: if they were her own daughters I would understand more, given that having a daughter probably provokes constant fear in Saudi mothers that something immoral will happen, but she is just their principal.
Indeed, Wadjda’s mother comes off as both at times proud of her talkative, bold daughter but then exasperated by her rebellious behavior. Played by the stunning Reem Abdullah (an Amal look-alike), Wadjda’s mother wants to buy a tight red dress for an upcoming wedding and smokes cigarettes, but at the same time chastises her daughter for her involvement in arranging a meeting between student Abeer and a man, and firmly puts her foot down on buying a bike. She chastises a friend for working in a hospital with men and uncovering her face, yet she acts like a naive little girl craving any attention when she tries to gain her husband’s affection even as he searches for a new wife (I would have locked the door and told him never to come back).
The behavior of Ms. Houssa, Wadjda’s mother and the little school girls is representative no doubt of a form of brainwashing, where one is lead to believe that something is true, even if it is ridiculous, but more importantly it represents a high level of fear. Young girls and unmarried women must be kept on short leashes, because if they transgress they will be tainted and will bring shame to the entire family. Sadly, this is probably a coping mechanism, but I still find it unbelievable that women would want to take the very rules that constrict them and use them to bully other women.
Wadjda, however, is determined to live life the way she wants. When she hears about the religious club’s Qu’ran recital competition, which has a 1,000 riyal prize, she is determined to win the money and thus buy her bike. Since this wasn’t a typical Hollywood film, one might have expected Wadjda to repent: to realize that material items weren’t important and only her religion matters, etc. etc. And while there is a Hollywood ending of sorts, I was still glad that Wadjda (despite Ms. Houssa’s beliefs) does not change. I like the fact that she does not let the cultural beliefs that have been wrongly associated with Islam take over her spunk and desire to ride a bike; I like that she doesn’t succumb to being a good girl (why does a girl have to be “good,” anyway? And that goes for all cultures!) Her feminism is not stamped out; she is still as ambitious and gender-challenging as ever.
To conclude, although I found the gender issues in the film too heartbreaking to dismiss, I thoroughly enjoyed Wadjda and hope to see more of its stars (and Haifa Mansour) in the future. My favorite part of the whole film (besides the scene where the insanely adorable little Abdullah, who is going to grow up into a cutie, tells Wadjda that he wants to marry her someday, thus signifying that he likes his women bold and unconventional) is also one that I was surprised was included, for it is a rare example of hypocrisy being thrown in someone’s face. Wadjda retorts to Principal Houssa: “what about your handsome thief?” referring to the fact that a very handsome “thief” was found at the Principal’s house and is suspected to be her lover, thus exposing the principal’s hypocritical behavior towards the girls, since she clearly is not as virtuous as she wants them to be.
Here’s to Wadjda and hoping it wins Best Foreing Film at the 86th Academy Awards!