PG, 98 min.
Director/Writer: Haifaa Al Mansour
Starring: Waad Mohammed, Reem Abdullah, Abdullrahman Algohani, Ahd, Sultan Al Assaf
In the early days of Ebertfest—when it was called the Overlooked Film Festival—they used to have a free family matinee on Saturdays. I don’t belive the first film of the day is still called a family matinee, and I don’t believe it is free any more. Of course, it may be. I haven’t been there in five years. Anyway, It was usually a film like “Wadjda”. Sometimes a foreign film, always a strong story about a child, the 1st Saturday matinee was a movie you might expect children to struggle with, but it always held great fascination for them because it involved children.
“Wadjda” comes from Saudi Arabia. After one documentary and one feature film (this one), its writer director Haifaa Al Mansour has been called one of the most important filmmakers in The Kingdom. She is not popular with the male rulers of that country, but the fact that she is able to make and market films about women in that repressive culture means that there must be some form of demand for change in the region.
Her touching film tells the story of a 10-year-old girl named Wadjda. She desires to own a bicycle so she can keep up with and hold some equality with the neighborhood boys her age. Wadjda is one of those kids with a happy go lucky nature that leads her into situations with authority figures who take umbrage with strictly adhering to the cultural norms. Most of her straying from the accepted cultural practices are less statements or acts of defiance than a result of being distracted by the things that distract children in less socially strict society.
Wadjda often finds herself in trouble for not wearing her Hajib, the traditional Saudi female headdress, or standing in the sightline of men. It’s horrific for those from more gender equal cultures to witness how the men in Saudi culture aren’t responsible for any of their behavior toward women. It’s always the woman’s fault. But, the women in this film, for the most part, accept these cultural aspects of their lives because it’s what they’ve been taught to accept. Mansour very subversively questions these cultural practices against women without ever out right condemning them.
Wadjda learns of a contest that will win her enough money to buy herself a bike. It is a contest for recitation of the Koran, which teaches many of these practices restricting women. When she finally does win and is asked what she plans on doing with the money, she quite plainly says she plans to buy a bike, which are considered indecent for women to ride. She has no idea that her wishes are considered wrong, and here is the key to the film. Mansour is telling her audience that the innocence of a child is a better guide to what is right than a man’s book designed to control and blame women.