Wadjda, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, is a film that should immediately attract our attention. It is the first to be made entirely in Saudi Arabia. It is also the first of the nation’s films to be created by a female film director. These exciting breakthroughs of Arabian film traditions and taboos are mirrored in the subject matter. The exploration of the relationship between place, gender, and (self) expression plays a prominent part in negotiating barriers both within the script and within the real life making of the film.
Immediately, Wadjda is depicted as a rebellious schoolgirl, pushing at any boundaries that come her way. She has an entrepreneurial streak of selling homemade friendship bracelets and being apparently indispensable to those around her. Indeed, throughout the film she is seen carrying the messages of others’ in order to make money. However, she stands out not just because of her high spirits and enthusiasm for life, but because she is a high spirited and enthusiastic girl living in Saudi Arabia.
The other girls in her class all wear the appropriated black footwear and cover their heads with black scarves. Not Wadjda. She wears Converses to school, and is often seen trailing around the city with her scarf (if she actually has it with her) floating along behind in the breeze.
The film meanders through Wadjda’s life both at home and at school. This young girl negotiating a sense of place for herself within a domestic setting and social society each containing tensions between custom, tradition and religion. Two female characters, Wadjda’s mother and headmistress, embody and condone certain oppressive traditions. This is striking because it reminds us as viewers that women as well as men reinforce traditional values, and that women largely carry out the repression of other women. This indicates just how hard it is for young girls to break out of this constricting cycle, as likely role models are insisting on their ‘silence’ and submissiveness.
One of the most powerful moments that references this female-to-female oppression is near the start of the film. Wadjda and her friends are laughing and chattering as they walk into school, innocently enjoying themselves. Yet the stony headmistress greets them with her raised eyebrows, and, “silence girls! Do you want the men to hear you? … A woman’s voice is her nakedness.” It feels like Wadjda constantly has to struggle against a suffocating sense of female shame imposed upon her body, voice and mind by those that should be helping her to be her best. However, the typically villain character of the headmistress could account for this imposed subordination more than the actual rules set down by religious customs themselves.
The words, “do you want the men to hear you?” is reiterated throughout the film. This highlights some of the power discrepancies between the sexes in Saudi Arabia. Women are not allowed to express themselves. They are not allowed an audience. They are not allowed to be heard. This marginalisation is sharply brought into focus during the short scene where Wadjda and her mother talk about her father’s family tree. The ‘wonderful, noble’ tree only includes men. Indeed, Wadjda’s mother says somewhat playfully, words to this effect: “you won’t be found on it Wadjda”. This statement of negligibility obviously plays on Wadjda’s mind as she is later seen sticking a piece of paper with her own name scrawled across it onto the family tree, marking where her place should be. It is a wonderful moment because she realises she can do something to make herself ‘present’ and heard.
Certainly Wadjda is such a heart-warming character because she believes everything is possible. There is a spectacular moment when she catches sight of a sparkling green bike that appears to be moving along by itself in mid-air. In fact, it is actually attached to a car a few streets away. However, the joy that it gives her, and its sense of possibility, invests the bike with great importance for both her and the viewer. As Tobias Grey stated in his review in the Financial Times, the bike is an obvious symbol of freedom. She feels she must have this bike so she can beat her male friend in a cycling race and assert her individuality, independence and will. She will not listen to the cries of “bikes are not for girls”, which was started by her own mother.
Where the filmmaker Haifaa al-Mansour was educated could help reveal the motivations behind the way Saudi Arabia, and the relationships between men and women, are depicted. She studied comparative literature in the American University in Cairo and then went to film school in Sydney. This physical distance could have psychologically helped her to step back from her country and view the life she had experienced there more critically.
Haifaa stated her film was not meant to be confrontational, but the fact that oppression of women and imbalances between the sexes is being acknowledged helps to expose its injustice, though maybe more so if looking from a Western viewpoint. This film is not merely observing – no film can be, as perspective is always subjective and always has a motive behind it. It is deciding about the future of women, and therefore the future of Saudi Arabian society as a whole.
The film asks questions about what would happen if women allowed their curiosity to flourish. What if they followed their own minds? What if they started to re-negotiate a space for themselves in society and company of their own choosing? What if…? This film certainly wants to make us think and imagine another way (and state) of being.
‘Wadjda’ seems to be questioning what religion is (or has become) and juxtaposing it with questions about what is merely a stifling tradition disguised as religious duty. In particular, Wadjda’s mother and her strict wearing of the burka illustrate these ideas. Although she is a strong woman in some ways, she recoils when her more liberal friend suggests she abandon her teaching job with its horrendous commute across the city, and work at a hospital side by side with men without covering her face. Though is her immediate refusal purely out of blind love for her wayward husband, and fear of what he would say if she worked alongside men? Or is it a fear of sinning against her religion and tainting her honour and virtue? Or are the two so interlinked that we can never be sure? She would need her husband’s approval not just to travel to the hospital but also to accept the job in the first place.
We do not know whether Wadjda’s mother does manage to overcome her fears. This is an example of the way the film asks questions and explores possibilities rather than giving simplified answers to highly complicated and layered situations. This open-endedness gives the film some of its integrity. She does eventually support her daughter Wadjda. This is one of the factors contributing to the overall uplifting feel of the film. It is about determination, perseverance, and believing in a vision and in oneself. Believing in, and helping, other women are also shown to be vital.
Although the film makes a great point of showing that Wadjda does not quite get what she wants she does find a solution and a reward in an unexpected place. ‘Remain curious’ and ‘remain hopeful’ are the unarticulated words offered to us at the end.