Wadjda (London Film Festival review)
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
It is illegal to show movies publicly in Saudi Arabia. It is forbidden for adult women to do almost anything without the permission of a male “guardian,” usually a father, brother, or husband. And yet somehow Haifaa Al-Mansour managed to write and direct a feature film — she is the first Saudi woman to do so, and how she managed this and whether there will be repercussions are things I worry about on her behalf.
I also wondered whether the sheer novelty of Wadjda’s origin would be the most interesting thing about it. In this, at least, my worries have been put to rest. For this is a delightful and powerfully satisfying film in all ways, an arthouse crowd-pleaser about a charmingly irrepressible protagonist that’s also a big ol’ delicious Fuck You, both within its story and in the larger context of its own very existence, to anyone who would dare to keep a gal down.
Ten-year-old Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) lives just outside Riyadh — apparently, unlike in the most other places around the planet, the capital and biggest city is the most conservative area of Saudi Arabia — and she’s just trying to be a kid in a world where medieval levels of oppression grind girls and women down and severely limit their lives. Wadjda has no such perspective on her situation, of course: Al-Mansour gives us what is very much a child’s-eye view of Wadjda’s life and misadventures. So while we can see that Wadjda is a spunkball of individualistic aggressiveness in a place in which girls and women are supposed to be silent and invisible, all Wadjda knows is that it’s fun to defy her teachers by wearing Converse sneakers with bright blue laces under her sere black robes when she should be wearing boring plain mary janes, and that rigging up a radio antenna from wire clothes hangers in order to catch an English-speaking, American-accented DJ playing pop music is a good way to piss off her mother (Reem Abdullah).
Wadjda is wholly, fully, gloriously a kid in ways totally recognizable to Western perspectives, as when she rolls her eyes at a telling-off by her mother. (Yeah, there are more than a few moments here full of cosy humor.) That shouldn’t need to be said, but there’s a simmering assumption in some Western discourse that people who live so differently than we do are somehow alien and not fully human. Pointing out that that is bullshit is not to say, however, that how Saudi culture treats women is acceptable. And the deceptive simplicity of Wadjda renders it all the more startling as endless No’s and Don’ts pile on to its young heroine, and hence to us. It’s a tough goal Wadjda has set for herself: she wants to buy a bicycle so she can race neighbor boy Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani) and prove she can beat him, cuz girls rule and boys’ arrogance demands a takedown, but the daunting task of saving enough money to do so is compounded by the fact that at every turn, everyone tells her that girls don’t ride bikes, that it ruins their virtue. (Also: her entrepreneurial endeavor of making bracelets in football team colors to sell at school is, naturally, also a forbidden activity.)
The real kicker is that Wadjda’s predicament as a smart, spirited little girl bursting with a personality the world is trying to stifle isn’t all that far removed from what happens to little girls everywhere. There are only degrees of difference between Wadjda being scolded not to play outside where men can see here and every little girl that you know and love having internalized the message that the most important thing about her life is that men find her attractive. All little girls everywhere should take heart from Wadjda’s unarticulated cry of “I am here! I am me!” And we should be ensuring that no little girl anywhere has her unique voice stifled. Wadjda is a rousing reminder that we owe girls more than we’ve so far given them.
viewed during the 56th BFI London Film Festival