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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Wadjda (London Film Festival review)

Wadjda green light Waad Mohammed

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

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Wadjda (2013)
US/Can release: Sep 13 2013
UK/Ire release: Jul 19 2013

Flick Filosopher Real Rating: rated YCKAGD: you can’t keep a girl down
MPAA: rated PG for thematic elements, brief mild language and smoking
BBFC: rated U

viewed in 2D
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • que mas da

    How useful it is to western feminists the oppression of women in other parts of the wordl. As she says, girls rule and anything below that is unacceptable.

  • How useful it is to western feminists the oppression of women in other parts of the wordl.

    Please explain what you mean by this.

  • que mas da

    It´s quite obvious. Western feminists use the oppression of women in other parts of the wordl (and in history) to blame contemporary Western men and justify policies of discrimination against them. It’s not a war against women, it’s a holy war against men, and anyone who dares to resist is accused of being a women hater, etc.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    But you do hate women. It’s plain as day in your comment history. Possibly not all women, I’ll grant, but many many women. You’re convinced they’re out to get you, personally, in order to… um… say not nice things about you? Actually, I’m a little fuzzy on what exactly you think these policies of discrimination against men actually do. I assume it’s something more dastardly than causing your favorite pickup lines to fail? Something real, systematic, and statistically significant?

  • Sorry, does this have something to do with my review of this film?

  • que mas da

    I do not hate women, but I admit I do not like gender feminists. Now, if you are worried about hate, what about the immense hate feminists feel about men? Read the most popular feminist manifesto, the SCUM manifesto. It´s available in the Internet. And it is interesting that you accuse me of being a usual user of prostitution. As usual in feminist tactics, anyone that disagrees with their dogmas is accused of some crime against women. It is also interesting that you have reviewed my comment history; very proper of a collaborationist.

  • que mas da

    “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.”

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    I do jot hate women
    I’m shocked that you would say that. But then, I suppose in your mind, that might be totally consistent, assuming you don’t see feminists as women. Otherwise it’s just good old fashioned lack of self-awareness.

    A user of prodtitution? No, no, I’m not saying anything like that. I’m just speculating on what wrong feminists have perpetrated on you, personally, and suggesting that perhaps y usual methods of courting women don’t work on “feminists”.

    I’ll see your “SCUM” and raise you “Alpha Game”. (And don’t bother telling me you’ve never heard of it, you’ve got the Internet right there in front of you, look it up.) and now we’ve established that there are shitty people on all sides, but I’m not going to flame the Alpha Gamers represent any more than their own insular, paranoid, and sad little group of little boys.

    “Collaborationist”, huh? Pray, what do you think collaborating with? The radical notion at women are people?

  • que mas da

    There we go again. The crux of the matter is that I criticised feminism and, consequently, I got attacked personally, once and again. Even my comment history was reviewed to look for incriminating elements. That is exactly what I denounced. Feminism has become the totalitarism of the XXI century (that is why I used the word collaborationist); any criticism of this ideology or its dogmas is a crime. And I should not have replied to someone that makes personal attacks. Goodbye.

  • que mas da

    One more thing, to prevent misunderstandings: I would “fight” for women’s equal rights (or equal rights in general).

  • Danielm80

    Quoting your arguments and asking you to clarify them is not a personal attack. It’s a debate.

    But then, you haven’t made any actual arguments. You’ve just typed a lot of buzzwords.

    If you want to make an actual argument, you need to back up your comments with specific examples:

    How is feminism totalitarianism? Who was being oppressed, and what were the circumstances?

    What “crime” were people accused of committing, and what “dogma” were they criticizing when they received that response?

    How is looking up your comment history (something that takes about 30 seconds on Disqus, since the information is publicly available) a “collaborationist” act? Which feminists is he collaborating with, and when did he meet with them? And to repeat a question that was asked earlier: Which feminist doctrine are they collaborating on, other than the general idea that women are people?

    Feel free to provide answers any time. I’ll be over here, not holding my breath.

  • That does not address my question.

    If you want to rant, go do it elsewhere. We are discussing the film Wadjda here.

  • singlestick

    RE: There we go again. The crux of the matter is that I criticised feminism

    Who cares? Do you have anything interesting or useful to say about the film being reviewed here? Anything else is a tiresome distraction.

  • pero esto que es

    A new kind of totalitarism is taking hold in the western world. Reacting to it is not a distraction. Even if many will insist in defending it.

  • singlestick

    An odd, irrelevant reaction to a movie review, or an automated bot response. Can’t tell which. Oh, well.

  • LaSargenta

    Okaaaaaay…fascinating exchange here; but, I’m popping in to let EVERYONE know that I finally saw this at the Angelica…the pixie was interested in seeing this, too. Good movie. Well done ending. I loved that last shot.

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