Wadjda

Rating: Wadjda is the first film by a female Saudi Arabian Director. The film dances with a twinkle in its eye, and it really should be seen. In English sub-titles.

WadjdaThough it has left the movie theater here in Indianapolis, Wadjda is one of those captivating films that you simply have to hunt down. It is both amusing and heartwarming, and Waad Mohammed, who plays young Wadjda, will steal your heart.

Wadjda is a complete contrarian, a 10-year old girl living with her mother in a suburb of Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. Living in a conservative society where women are frequently forced to accept a backseat to men, she approaches nearly every rule with the question, “Why do I have to do that?”;

Writer/Director Ms. Haifaa Al-Mansour gives us a look at the daily lives of Saudi women. Though there is nothing dishonorable about her characterizations, it is clearly not a film that traditional Saudi men are going to want to see.

In Wadjda’s case she consistently challenges authority. At her all girls religious school, she particularly frustrates the Head Mistress, Ms. Hussa.

What really troubled Wadjda was the fact that only boys were permitted to ride bicycles on the streets. Spotting a green bicycle for sale, she kept driving her loving mother crazy by insisting on a loan to buy it.

In addition, while arguing with her mother for some justification why only boys could ride a bike, her mother quickly responded, “It will ruin your virginity.” Wadjda didn’t buy that for a second, and her mother could only laugh.

The relationship between mother and daughter was a centerpiece of this fine film, not the least reason being that Wadjda’s father was seldom there as he pursued other women. While her mother, played with great spirit by Reem Abdullah, seldom lost her composure, it was soon apparent that the family was going to be left in her husband’s rearview mirror.

Furthermore, you get a birds-eye view on many of the restrictions on women in Saudi society. Importantly, you discover how women try to cope with not being able to drive a car. They all have to hire regular drivers, which can  become a gigantic problem depending on the mood of the gentleman in  question.

More to the point, the plot revolves around Wadjda’s decision to participate in a Koran competition at school where the top prize would give her enough money to buy her treasure. She’s not a particularly religious young lass, and she astounds Ms. Hassa with her sudden devotion to the Koran.

However, when Ms. Hassa discovers her duplicity, Wadjda is destined to win the battle but lose the cash. Her mother faces the same results with her marriage, and the embrace of the two at the end is so emotionally uplifting that many of you will be fighting back tears.

I should also note that the film frequently focuses on Wadjda’s relationship with Abdullah, a young boy her own age who owns a bike. Though he initially ridicules her, he soon becomes an ally, and their friendship reaffirms your faith in children everywhere.

To be quite frank, I was hoping to take my Saudi foreign exchange student, Thamer, along with me to this film. He had seen it before, and strongly felt that it exaggerated the relationships of men and women today in his homeland. When I told him that I truly adored this film, he laughed and clearly thought I was adopting an historical fiction.

As I grabbed him by his head, I told him to go back to Riyadh and wear an abaya and hijab, then come back and tell me what the film really missed. Quite frankly, even if you could accurately argue that some of the film’s characterizations are a bit overstated, something that I don’t concede, the net effect is to create a far more understanding view of the entire Middle East.

Sure, they still have a long way to go when it comes to their full treatment of women, but as I recall, women were not allowed to vote in our country less than 100 years ago. Give Saudi Arabia and her sister countries some time, and they will be fine.