Thursday, March 6, 2014


There is nothing better than a simple film, unpretentious and without artifice that shares an uncomplicated yet rich, thought-provoking and inspiring tale simply through its depiction of an interesting subject conveyed through compelling characters. The foreign film Wadjda is such a film and it delivers on so many levels. Wadjda is both the name of the film and the tale’s titular character, a young girl living in a suburb of Saudi Arabia’s capital who is fighting against the strictures of her society and religion.

At first glance Wadjda is your typical tween; she lives with her mom and her mostly absent father, attends school, makes mixed tapes of Western music and for extra money sells friendship bracelets to her classmates. The difference lies in the fact that Wadjda must wear an ankle-length abaya (black robe worn by Muslim women) and cover her hair whenever she’s in public such as during her walk to school, and on her shoulders also lies the worries of her mother, who is dealing with the possibility of her beloved husband taking on a second wife.

Wadjda’s life centered around school and home until she saw "It"; "It" was a beautiful green bike which she instantly loved and dreamed of buying in order to race and beat her friend Abdullah. When Wadjda’s pleas to her mom fall on deaf ears she relies on her entrepreneurial skills and determination to try and raise enough money to buy the bike on her own, in spite of her mother’s horrified objections since she's told girls don’t ride bikes because of the risk to their purity and ability to have children (yup, that's the party line). In the face of adversity, including a horror of a principal, Wadjda fights for both her dream and her rightful place in the complicated world in which she lives.

Wadjda was such a wonderful film, doubly so because it was so groundbreaking. Wadjda is the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and also the first made by a female Saudi filmmaker. Both of these facts made its undertaking no easy feat given Saudi Arabia is a country where movie theaters are banned and women can’t vote or drive. I just loved it because of the sweet and sincere story and its lovable and spunky main character.

Young Wadjda was sassy and funny and challenged conventions at every turn, from having a boy for a best friend to the fact that poking out from under her abaya were purple-laced Converse sneakers. While her coming-of-age journey wasn’t epic in its obstacles it was nonetheless life-altering because while the end goal is just a bike, in truth it is about so much more. In Wadjda’s determination to own that bike and to not only race but beat her friend is a statement as to what she sees as her worth. She might be a girl but she’s just as deserving of a bike and just as capable of riding and racing. Wadjda is telling the world at large that her life and its possibilities are limitless; the future is in her hands, no one elses.

The movie is eye-opening and at times chilling in its depiction of the rules and limitations faced by girls and women in Saudi Arabia. For example, the schoolgirls are censured by the principal when they are laughing out loud and told “Women’s voices shouldn’t be heard by the men outside. A woman’s voice is her nakedness.” At every turn you see how a woman is valued less than a man, evident in the fact that Wadjda’s mother is facing the pain of having her husband take a second wife because of the simple fact that she can no longer have children and society demands a boy child. This truth is yet again clear in the fact that only men's names appear in an illustration of the family tree that sits in Wadjda's home, which is why the ever cheeky Wadjda writes her name on a piece of paper and pins it next to where her father’s name appears. The most startling moment for me came in a scene of religion class where the girls are studying the Koran and they’re instructed by the teacher that if they have their period they can’t touch the Koran with their bare fingertips, they must use a tissue.

Wadjda is a great film that both inspires and educates. Its tale offers hope for a brighter future; one in which a young girl can ride a bike into the sunset or a talented woman as in the case of Haifaa al-Mansour, the film's writer and director, can offer the world a moving story that through its mere existence is breaking down barriers.