Jess Naylor

wadjda-posterDirector/writer: Haifaa Al Mansour; starring Reem Abdullah, Waad Mohammed; eOne/Hopscotch film distributors, 2012; 98 mins. Available on DVD, July 2014.

The star of Haifaa Al Mansour’s groundbreaking new film could be any other teenager. Wadjda blasts indie music in her room when her parents are talking to her and argues constantly with her mother, she talks about boys with her friends at school and hides electric blue nail polish from her teachers. However, it is the simple concepts of time and place that force both the film and Wadjda’s life into a territory that is worlds apart from any other teen movie.

Wadjda lives in Saudi Arabia, a setting that is made ever more dominant due to the fact that it is the first film to be filmed entirely within the Kingdom. Due to this, the audience is trapped within their world through the constant images of dust and sand and heat. In fact, Al Mansour manages to so effectively involve us in the characters’ surrounds that stepping outside at the end of the movie into a concrete parking lot feels more foreign than the deserts on screen.

This is a slow movie which chooses to gradually involve us through everyday conversations and activities, rather than twists or turns. At times it could be difficult to pick out any type of climax or high point. This, however, is what makes the film so memorable. For it is the way it immerses us within the characters’ lives that forces us to become so attached to their stories and the means by which they get through every day in the deeply oppressive society they inhabit. Every single day presents challenges to Wadjda and her mother, well-known Saudi actress Reem Abdullah, as they struggle with the strict rules that govern them because of their gender — from the way Wadjda dreams of buying a bike to her mother’s desperation in attempting to stop her husband getting a second wife.

These problems seem so foreign to a Western viewer — we would never even consider making a movie that revolves around what might seem ‘other’. But, as we learn, this is the way of life for so many Saudi Arabian women and it is this that makes Wadjda so profound as both a film and a window into a different part of the planet.

However, it is the lead actress, 12-year-old Waad Mohammed, who sets this movie apart, almost challenging you not to like her with her witty comebacks and positive demeanour. She lacks the ‘shininess’ or confidence of so many Western child actors but, rather, relies on a rough, natural spirit that truly radiates throughout the film. Waad carries the simple premise of a girl’s quest for a bike into a challenge of Saudi Arabian values and society. She, and this film, symbolise the push for change being led by her generation.

Al Mansour’s film is often difficult to watch in its effort to truthfully depict how women live in places we know so little about. However, despite these struggles, the film manages to end on a bittersweet note of hope for Wadjda, her mother and for the rest of their lives. It is this that brings us so intimately into the story and reminds the audience that, in our dreams and hopes and aspirations, we are not so different to these characters after all.

JESS NAYLOR is a young feminist and future journalism student. She loves riding bikes, listening to pop music and wearing converses, just like Wadjda.

(2014) 39(2) AltLJ 145
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