Sometimes a story, told simply and effectively, changes the way we as an audience see another part of the world, the experiences of others and/or ourselves, all reflected in the moving images before us. What’s more, it can be startling when the impact, so profound and likely unexpected, cracks our cynical natures through its very simplicity.
Take, for example, the story of Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), a crafty young Saudi Arabian girl, who hustles and schemes to raise money for a bicycle, a treasure denied to young girls in that culture. The male-dominated society, bound by archaic religious commandments, preaches endlessly on all of the ways in which women must be protected from themselves and the men around them. Women cannot, in mixed company, speak above a whisper. It is improper for women to be seen by men in public, but if they must be, then women must be covered, preferably from head-to-toe. And, getting back to Wadjda and her dream, young girls definitely cannot ride bicycles — for fear that the act will rob them of their virginity.
But this prohibition won’t stop Wadjda. She walks to school, encountering her friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani) — a relationship with a child of the opposite sex is also a social and cultural no-no — and as they run and play, she knows she is faster on foot, but when he jumps on his bike, all she sees is a chance, another opportunity to prove herself, to fly off ahead of him. So she makes and sells bracelets and cassette tapes of American Pop music to her classmates. And she schemes when the right situation presents itself, anything to scrimp and save a little more.
That is until the announcement of a contest, in which the student with the best readings from the Koran receives a cash prize, captures Wadjda’s attention. As we’ve seen, she’s not particularly religious or the most studious young girl in her class, but she’s willful and determined, and that combination makes her a disciplined force to be reckoned with.
Wadjda’s a counter-cultural revolutionary, and not just in the ways I’ve described. She’s also acutely aware of the stern lessons taught on the home front. Wadjda loves her father (Sultan Al Assaf), a doting but scarce presence at home. He drops by to visit Wadjda and her mother (Reem Abdullah), but faces pressure from his family to take on another wife, one willing and able to provide him with more offspring, especially male heirs. Wadjda’s mother works to make ends meet, but she does so under the strict rules yoked onto women in Saudi society. As a mother and head of a “minority” household, she cannot help but scold Wadjda in order to prepare her for a life under the same policies.
And yet, just as I mentioned that sometimes a story can lead to change, often it is the telling of a story that can inspire just as much as the narrative itself. In the case of Wadjda the film, that is certainly true. Writer-director Haifaa Al-Mansour is the first female filmmaker in Saudi Arabia. Imagine, for a moment, what that means. The very act of writing and shooting the story of this rebellious young girl comes from a filmmaker daring to challenge society in her own way. Al-Mansour had to find ways around prohibitions on women being in the presence of men (not to mention giving orders to men among both the cast and crew). She had to overcome the rules about speaking in public, commanding attention, being bold and assertive. Al-Mansour seized the reins not merely in a male-centric field, but in a culture that, through its every single act and code, had deemed women to be less than visible and present.
Talk about working in a straightjacket. This is more akin to filmmaking with both hands tied behind your back, your mouth gagged and a hood over your head, but Wadjda, as a film, has an assured style and such naturalism in its flow, it feels almost a bit too common and familiar. I can imagine audiences walking out of theaters, dismissing the simplicity of what has just unspooled before them. “It’s cute,” they might say, “a girl who wants a bike,” without understanding what it took to tell the tale.
Rarely, it seems, are films produced here in the United States so burdened with such societal baggage, yet so equally inspired through the parallels between the subject and filmmaker. Wadjda is a simple tale, but make no mistake, it is no less profound in its execution. (Opens Friday) (PG)
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