Wadjda, dir. Haifaa al-Mansour
Saudi Arabia, 2013
Note: this review contains spoilers
It is easy with a film that has a backstory like this one to let that backstory take precedence over the film itself. That it was shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, a country where film in general is only grudgingly permitted (and film screenings are held in secret). It’s the country’s first Oscar submission ever, and to meet and Academy requirement that each such film have a commercial release in its own country, the film was screened in a couple of foreign embassies, because there are no commercial theaters. Add that to the fact that Wadjda was directed by a woman— who had to direct any outdoor shooting via walkie-talkie while she sat in a van, so that she would not be seen exercising authority over men— and you have a set of circumstances that seem ready-made for the familiar narrative of restrictive Muslim societies that oppress women who must, inevitably, be fighting against those restrictions.
And, with that frame in mind, it would be easy to read the film that way as well. The plot is straightforward: Wadjda is a little girl with a strong, mildly rebellious personality. She wants a bicycle to race a neighbor boy, but is told both that her family cannot afford it and that girls don’t ride bikes. She enters a Qur’an recitation competition at school because the prize money is enough to pay for the bike; when she wins, she unwisely reveals her plan for the money to the school’s strict principal, who then more or less forces her to give the money “to Palestine” instead. In the end, her mother comes through, purchasing the bike with money she planned to use to buy a dress to impress her husband and his family. Along the way, the husband— apparently under some pressure from his family— is considering taking a second wife, because Wadjda’s mother can’t have more children and he wants a son. Throughout, there are repeated reminders of the cultural context and women’s place in it: Wadjda is chastised for walking to school with her head only partially covered; girls at the school are told not to speak loudly enough for men outside to hear them, because “your voice is your nakedness”; a friend of Wadjda’s mother risks scandal by taking a job at a hospital, where she will work with men.
But the really striking thing about Wadjda is how it avoids settling in to such simplistic narrative. All of the characters are complex and nuanced, and none sit easily as the representative of the oppressive and misogynist state/culture. Wadjda’s father, who might initially seem to be the best candidate for that role, is also clearly a loving father, proud of her and her accomplishments and encouraging of her interests. Despite the fact that he is willing to marry a second woman in order to have a son, we get no sense at all that he does not value his daughter. (And, again, he may be under pressure from his family, though how much of a factor that is in his decision is never really clear).
The sense we get of most of the characters in the film is of people who, like most people anywhere, live within a set of cultural norms and expectations that they mostly take for granted. Sometimes those expectations are, indeed, frustrating or even destructive, but the characters do not try to position themselves in opposition to any great structure or system of oppression, and it is clear that the women in the story have at least some room to negotiate their individual relationship with the rules for themselves. Wadjda’s mother, for instance, is shocked by her friend’s interactions with men at the hospital, but the dress she plans to buy to impress her husband’s relations is not what anyone would call demure, and, despite her earlier protests that it is inappropriate, she is the one to buy Wadjda the bike. Even Wadjda’s little rebellions read as the boundary testing a strong-willed and intelligent girl approaching adolescence. The only hint we get that there is any real danger in any of this is when we learn, from an overheard phone conversation, that one of Wadjda’s schoolmates has been “found with a man” and that the “religious police” have become involved.
None of this is to say that film seems unaware of the inequities of Saudi society, or that it tries to apologize for them. Wadjda’s father’s decision to marry again is not used to make him into the story’s villain, but it does read as selfish and more than a little callous. The school principal comes across as a sometimes petty martinet, concerned with rules for their own sake rather than because she thinks they serve an important function; and, indeed, there are many points at which gender restrictions are made to seem simply ridiculous: Wadjda’s mother, for instance, is a teacher, who works outside the home for money; but, because she is not allowed to drive, she remains dependent on a surly and impatient man (and his car with no air conditioning) to transport her back and forth each day. At the same time, a brief scene in which a much older construction worker leers and makes lewd comments at Wadjda makes it clear that, at least for some men, propriety is a woman’s only real protection in a society where the line between virgin and whore is both sharply drawn and perilously thin.
But the absence of any real, stalwart guardian of religious orthodoxy is striking. Religion is clearly a part of daily life, both as genuine faith and as the practical restrictions imposed by particular religious interpretations, but it does not define any of these people. That would be a useful corrective to the portrayal of Muslim societies that we see most often in the West even if the film weren’t beautifully shot, tightly constructed, and filled with subtle performances— all of which it is.