Reem Abdullah (left) with Waad Mohammed

Reem Abdullah (left) & Waad Mohammed

Written & Directed by Haifaa Al Mansour
Principal Actors: Reem Abdullah, Ahd, and Waad Mohammed

Summary:  This superlative first feature by Haifaa Al Mansour (Saudi Arabia’s first female director) cleverly puts a spunky tween named “Wadjda” in the foreground, but the film is really about the weight of societal pressure bearing down on Wadjda’s mother at home and her headmistress at school. The film simultaneously broke my heart and made it soar.

Rumor has it that Saudi Arabia is actually planning to name Wadjda as its candidate for the 2014 “Best Foreign Language Film” Oscar. If this is true, then the pressure for change has reached the very top of the royal hierarchy, and that is an even happier ending than I had dared to think possible!

Jan’s Review:

Wadjda, a new film from Saudi Arabia, invites viewers to see the world through the eyes of a child. But it is not meant for children; it is meant for adults. We [the adults in the audience] are asked to set aside everything we think we already know, and start fresh with no preconceptions. The child at the center of this story is actually a narrative hook, a mechanism to engage adult hearts (with hope that our brains will follow later).

One of the most beloved films in this genre is To Kill a Mockingbird, originally released in 1962 and now recognized as one of the great classics of American cinema. If I were to tell you that To Kill a Mockingbird is about a kid named “Scout,” you would tell me I was nuts. We all know that To Kill a Mockingbird is not about Scout but about her father. Here is the exact description that appears in IMDb (the Internet Movie Database): “Atticus Finch, a lawyer in the Depression-era South, defends a black man against an undeserved rape charge, and his kids against prejudice.” According to Wikipedia: “In 2003, Atticus Finch, as portrayed by Gregory Peck in the 1962 film adaptation, was voted by the American Film Institute to be the greatest hero in American film.”

So why is Scout in the foreground if the central figure is really Atticus? Fifty years later, decades after Martin Luther King’s triumphant March on Washington (1963), the murder of four girls—all of them close to Scout in age—in the bombing of a Birmingham church (1964), and the passage of major Civil Rights legislation (1965), not to mention the recent election of an African-American President (2008), it may be difficult for many people to believe that To Kill a Mockingbird was once considered controversial. But the truth is that not all critics were kindly disposed when the novel first appeared in 1960 (especially critics from the American South). Who would deny that it was—and is—much more difficult to “shoot the messenger” if that messenger is Scout?

Now back to Wadjda, here is what is currently posted on IMDb: “An enterprising Saudi girl signs on for her school’s Koran recitation competition as a way to raise the remaining funds she needs in order to buy the green bicycle that has captured her interest.” This description isn’t totally wrong, but neither is it quite on point. Yes, the film does show us a green bicycle, and yes, there is a Koran competition, but there is also so much more!

“Wadjda” (Waad Mohammed) is a spunky tween who lives with her mother (Reem Abdullah) in what appears to be an ordinary middle class home in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Wadjda’s father (Sultan Al Assaf) is rarely around, but whenever he is there, he dotes on her, encouraging her to play video games with him in their comfortable living room. Once Wadjda and her mother step outside their front door, however, life ceases to be either relaxed for them or familiar to us (where by “us” I mean members of a typical “First World” audience).

Like most middle class kids her age, Wadjda spends her days at school. But in Wadjda’s case, school is a place with very high walls that is closely managed by a formidable headmistress named “Ms. Hussa” (Ahd). Ms. Hussa does her best to keep the girls inside to ensure that they are well hidden from male eyes. At one point Wadjda is playing hopscotch in the courtyard with a few other girls when workmen appear on the roof of a distant building. The girls automatically flee before Ms. Hussa can give them a tongue-lashing for “exposing themselves,” even though none of us (again, meaning members of a typical “First World” audience) would think they had done anything in any way provocative.

It would be easy to hate Ms. Hussa and mock her for so diligently enforcing her many rules and regulations, but Wadjda’s writer/director Haifaa Al Mansour (Saudi Arabia’s first female filmmaker) makes it clear to us that Ms. Hussa is only an enforcer for the powers that be, all of whom, of course, are male. For Ms. Hussa, “educating girls” includes making sure they know which behaviors are acceptable and which are not. Anyone who breaks the rules is immediately disciplined and threatened with expulsion. Ms. Hussa is not just posturing. These are her responsibilities, and she knows she will quickly lose her position if her school develops a bad reputation.

But we only come to understand how truly restricted life is for women in Saudi Arabia when Al Mansour shows us Wadjda’s mother’s life outside the home. Wadjda’s mother never gets a name; she is always referred to—both on screen and in the credits—as “Mother.” My guess is that this was intentional because it reinforces the impression that in public she is more like a shadow than a full person. (Wadjda’s father doesn’t get a name either and is also referred to—both on screen and in the credits—as “Father,” but it doesn’t have the same force because we never see him in public. What few appearances he does make are always inside the home where it would be natural for a child to call her father “Father.”)

It is this dichotomy—our visceral experience of the contrast between the vibrant, sensuous woman inside the home and the fully-covered, nameless, faceless, totally powerless specter outside the home—which hits like a gut punch.

In the end, Wadjda gets her green bicycle and rides off with a neighbor named “Abdullah” (Abdullrahman Al Gohani) who is more of an embodiment of future possibilities than a real Saudi boy. And I watch them with tears streaming down my face—something I frankly never expected when I saw previews about a girl, a bike, and a Koran contest.

What moves me most, even now, days later, are two indisputable facts about Wadjda: First, it got made, and second, it got released. I hear through the grapevine that Saudi Arabia is actually planning to name Wadjda as its candidate for the 2014 “Best Foreign Language Film” Oscar. If this is true then the pressure for change has reached the very top of the royal hierarchy, and that is an even happier ending than I had dared to think possible.

I urge you to see Wadjda for yourself. In the words of Atticus Finch (ever so slightly amended): “If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from her point of view, until you climb inside of her skin and walk around in it.” Amen to that, Atticus!

Reem Abdullah, Sultan Al Assaf and Waad Mohammed

Reem Abdullah, Sultan Al Assaf and Waad Mohammed

© Jan Lisa Huttner (9/20/13)—Special for WomenArts (www.WomenArts.org)

Photo Credits: © 2012 – Razor Film, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics