Wadjda is the story of a Saudi Arabian girl who wants to have her own bike. It’s the first feature length film to be directed in Saudi Arabia by a female, Waifaa Al-Mansour. With favourable reviews and a family friendly PG rating, I decided that this would be a good opportunity to introduce both Lovely Daughters to a culture other than our own. So I drove them off to the Brighton Komedia, to sit in a roomy air conditioned cinema, with a beer by my side. These small freedoms were not lost on me.
They probably have to be at least 11 – any younger and they will probably struggle to understand the context – but this is an interesting, engaging film to see with your children. The film starts with a school scene, and ten year old Wadjda (although she definitely looks every day of actress Waad Mohammed’s twelve) is struggling against the constraints of school and society. School is portrayed as oppressive, but not too off puttingly harsh for the children in the audience. Likewise, there is warmth in Wadjda’s family life, with both her parents portrayed as loving, but troubled. Her father is thinking of taking a second wife. He wants a son, which Wadjda’s mother cannot bear him.
Against this background, Wadjda wants to own a bike so that she can enjoy the freedom of racing against her best friend, a boy named Abdullah. To this end, she embarks upon an entrepreneurial drive, selling homemade bracelets and mix tapes (remember them??) from the radio, and running errands. But before Wadjda can achieve her dream of riches, the innocence of her errands is tipped upside down as easily as her bag full of contraband goods. Such things are forbidden in school, in society, where even innocent errands lead to the edges of a skirmish with the religious police.
Thus thwarted, the only route left to Wadjda is that of winning the school’s Qu’ran recitation and knowledge competition. 1000 riyals are up for grabs, but this is going to be a long haul, as evidenced by a hilarious scene involving a games console, a huge flat screen television, and Islam’s own version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire.
I thought the portrayal of Islam was interesting – for example, the way prayer forms a part of daily life, and the way Wadjda and her mother participate in it together, without comment, without resentment. It’s just part of the way they live life. It’s more than just a duty; the women’s chanting of the scriptures has its own beauty, and forms a shared bond between mother and daughter, and even in a strange way between girls and teachers at school.
However, without banging any points home too forcefully, the portrayal of the daily oppression of citizens brought about in religion’s name, is subtle and rich:
– The potentally economically crippling effect on women of not being allowed to drive
– The skirting references to the religious police, and of families marrying off their young daughters in order to keep them pure and safe
– The annoyances to women of having to be covered up when out, and not being seen or heard by men likewise
– The all-female worlds of school and the family home, which look so much like our own worlds, with their jeans and heels and beautiful dresses, but which ferment with frustration at their closedness.
Also touched upon is the status of working class immigrants to Saudi. Wadjda is middle class, but briefly visits the working class district to find and berate Iqbal, her mother’s taxi driver.
The pre-pubescent Wadjda is sparky and bold with Iqbal, and in a separate scene when negotiating with a shopkeeper over the bicycle. But we know that this is a man’s world. How long, we wonder, will this openness be allowed to last? We are aware that, as Wadjda grows up, these freedoms will be taken away from her, just as she mentions to her mother that she will need an abaya to cover up on the way to school, as her teacher says that she can no longer go to school uncovered.
Of great ambivalence in this film is the role that women play in this oppression.
Ms Hussa, head of the girls’ school, knows that she has the responsibility of making sure her girls know how to conform, so that they can get on in society and have the best lives available to them. Although thorough and by the book, she is not vindictive. But she is not sympathetic either. She has become a successful woman, in one of the few available ways, and must keep up appearances and uphold the structure of this man’s world, which she has managed to negotiated.
By contrast, family friend Aunt Leila is shown leaving her job for a better one, in the hospital across the road. Here, she chooses to work alongside men, with her face uncovered in public scandalising Wadjda’s mother in the process. But Leila is clearly happier for having done so.
There’s a satisfying twist towards the end, and the ending itself is bittersweet, and a bit teary. Just as this is a film about society and the choices available to it, it is a film about a mother and a daughter and sacrifices and choices that individuals make. We don’t know what will happen to Wadjda, just as we have no idea how society in Saudi will develop. All we see is individuals developing, and gaining the strength to reach out to the things they want, however small they are.