Saturday, September 14, 2013


The significance of Wadjda was fully cemented long before it appeared in movie theaters.  The first movie to be filmed in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a nation where movie houses themselves are banned and the cinematic art form itself is considered corrupt, the achievement of Haifaa Al-Mansour's warm and gentle debut film would be considered a triumph even if the end result wasn't nearly half as strong as it is.  To boot, Al-Monsour is a woman, and Wadjda is a film about women set in a culture that vehemently suppresses the feminine experience .  The searing behind-the-scenes machinations are enough reasoning to rejoice-- not dissimilar to that of Jafar Panahi's vibrant Iranian protest documentary This Is Not a Film released stateside last year-- in short, that Wadjda exists at all is worthy of global celebration, and a firm embrace of the power, the magnitude and scope of the medium itself.  Wadjda is even the first movie in history that Saudi Arabia has entered into submission for the foreign language Academy Award, signaling the hopeful chorus of a nation, one without a single commercial theater of its own, hoping to open up and tell its enriching stories.

The backstory provides enough drama, so Wadjda employs a relatively simple narrative in setting to provide a small, but immersive experience set in Riyadh, the capital and largest city within Saudi Arabia's borders.  Wadjda (charmingly played by twelve-year-old Waad Mohammed in her film debut) is a precocious, slightly rebellious ten-year girl-- she wears inappropriate tennis shoes and likes Western-ized pop music and regularly faces discipline at school for not hiding her face.  She wants for nothing more than a bicycle of her own, a vehicle for a smidgen of independence in her isolated community, but more to pal around with the local boy she's taken with.  Unfortunately, bikes are play toys that are not afforded to young girls.  Al-Mansour tracks the cinematic trope of children and their bikes on similar roads well-traveled before by De Sica's The Bicycle Thief to the Dardenne Brothers' The Kid With the BikeWadjda may be a slight and modestly scaled variant but holds a charm and deliberate pace all its own.  Wadjda's master scheme is to enlist in a Koran recitation competition that offers a cash prize.

The film uses Wadjda's experiences as a conduit to female perspective of her patriarchal culture.  Her mother (Reem Adbullah) faces transportation challenges of her own, as she's nearly at the mercy of the male driver who takes her "to the ends of the Earth" for work, belittling her along the way-- her story ever upended by the resentment her husband has over her inability to produce a male child (there's a scorching little moment where Wadjda tacks her name to her families all male female tree, only to see it taken down shortly thereafter.)  We see Wadjda's classmates, most of whom just waiting to be married off, disciplined and rigorously ruled by the demanding Ms. Hussa (a very good performance from the one-named actress Ahd.)  In short, we see a small chamber piece of the day-to-day trials and tribulations of the Riyadh women.  Interestingly, Al-Monsour had to film many of the sequences remotely due to the country's law that restricts male and female interplay in public settings.

I wished the Al-Monsour's script had been a little tighter, the pacing a bit less glacial and characterizations a bit more consistent, but there's still a clear-eyed mastery of the film language that's exhibited in Wadjda so persuasively and accessibly that is difficult to not be roused by it's near infectious and gentle warmth.  The closing shots of the film get a spectacular rise by hopeful arrival of cinematic discovery as well as a lovely and joyous (and very well-earned) send off for its title character.  B

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