Directed by: Haifaa al-Mansour || Produced by: Gerhard Meixner, Roman Paul
Screenplay by: Haifaa al-Mansour || Starring: Waad Mohammed, Reem Abdullah, Abdularhman al-Guhani, Sultan Al Assaf, Ahd Kamel, Ibrahim Al Mozael, Noof Saad, Rafa Al Sanea, Alanoud Sajini
Music by: Max Richter || Cinematography: Lutz Reitemeier || Edited by: Andreas Wodraschke || Country: Saudi Arabia, Germany || Language: Arabic
Running Time: 98 minutes
For a country in which “there are no movie theatres, there is no film industry to speak of“ and where women are treated as literal second-class citizens by nationally instituted Sharia Law, how impressive it was in 2012 the first ever feature-film was shot in Saudi Arabia, and by a female filmmaker no less. Haifaa al-Monsour’s Wadjda was a film that was shot more or less undercover over a span of five years, in which the female director, legally forbidden from mixing with men and walking uncovered in public, had to direct the crew from the back of a van, communicating via walkie-talkies and computer monitors for much of the production. Much like the movie’s story itself, the production period of the coming-of-age film had a happy ending and Wadjda was warmly received the world over.
There isn’t much to say about Wadjda that you can’t read from the trailer. It’s a familiar story of a young girl growing up and sometimes quietly, sometimes loudly, fighting the sexist society in which she lives. The titular young protagonist seeks personal expression and emotional fulfillment in a culture that largely ignores all feminine expression. Ignoring the important religious overtones of the narrative, Wadjda isn’t much different from a movie like Mulan (1998) that highlights social subjugation of women and the inevitable draining of social growth that follows.
Most every line of dialogue in the film relates to the sexist culture of Saudi Arabia and how women can’t do this or that, or how that (fill-in-the-blank) is for men only and women are meant for (such-and-such). That’s the biggest weakness of this film — the focus on the unfair mores of the Muslim nation is so constant that the repetitiveness of its conversations borders on aggravating. It makes sense given the context of the story, but at the same time it doesn’t, given how implausible it feels that such a historically sexist culture would allow its women to continuously second-guess the laws of their culture every chance they get, even amongst themselves.
Still, the charm of the film lies in its simple execution of a heart-warming story filled with likable characters. Wadjda features some of the best child-acting this side of Slumdog Millionaire (2008), with a multitude of spunky performances lead by actress Waad Mohammed (in her first acting job, no less) and co-star Abdullrahman Algohani. The adult cast fills out the majority of the story, with various characters playing either for or against Mohammed’s secret goal to, one day, buy a bicycle and beat Algohani in a race. The only problem is that girls aren’t allowed to ride bicycles, so… that leaves her in a bit of a pickle.
The main selling points beyond the feelgood nature of the story and the likability of the cast have to do with the eye-opening culture shock most viewers receive upon first entering the film’s Arabian setting. I’ll admit, a large part of my enjoyment in seeing Wadjda had to do with its introduction to a rarely seen and understood culture. To most Westerners and non-Muslims, a good deal of the memorability of the film will hinge on its depiction of Sharia Law and Arabian lifestyles, which are so rarely depicted in cinema.
However, even if you’re a born-and-bred native of writer-director Monsour’s Saudi Arabia, the charm of the story will engage you from opening to closing credits. It’s a hard story not to like, and its director’s dedication to on-location authenticity is commendable. The movie is upbeat about its message and its characters’ struggles, and it’s able to find a healthy balance between adherence to its analysis of its native culture and a universal humanist appeal for genuine personal fulfillment. As far as socially conscious dramas go, Wadjda is neither pushing new boundaries nor is terribly complex, but that’s not a shout against it when it’s got this much heart and humanity.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Monsour tells a familiar tale but makes it her own, and from the back of a van, no less. Her characters are by and large archetypes, but they fill out the story well and make it a social commentary worth listening to. Waad Mohammed is fantastic as the eponymous lead, and her chemistry with the rest of the cast is great.
— However… the dialogue is so feminist-conscious to the point of silliness and grows thin by the end.
? A: “They say if you die in service of Allah, poof! You get 40 virgins!”
B: “Poof! Forty bikes?”
A: “That’s not how it works!”