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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Review: Wadjda (2013)

* * * *

Director: Haifaa al-Mansour
Starring: Waad Mohammed

What the title character of Wadjda wants seems very simple. She wants a bicycle so that she and her friend can race. But as a girl in Saudi Arabia, reminded constantly that she should cover her face or go indoors so that she's not seen and that she should keep her voice down so that she's not heard, she might as well wish for a pet unicorn. Then again, there's a first time for everything - just ask director Haiffa al-Mansour who, in bringing Wadjda to the screen, became the first Saudi woman to direct a feature length film, the first person to shoot an entire feature in Saudi Arabia, and the maker of the first film ever submitted by Saudi Arabia for consideration in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars. But even if Wadjda didn't have the distinction of being part of so many firsts, it would still be a film notable for the strength of its storytelling and the craft of its execution.

Wadjda's title character, played by Waad Mohammed, is an 11-year-old girl living with her mother (Reem Abdullah) and sometimes her father (Sultan Al Assaf), who is under pressure from his family to take a second wife who can provide him with a son. Wadjda's life is mostly a happy one, though the increasing strife between her parents is threatening that happiness, but she's beginning to feel the limits of the societal divide between genders. She dreams of owning a bicycle that has recently arrived at the shop in her neighborhood so that she and her friend, Abdullah (Abdullrahman Algohani), can race and has been quietly putting money aside so that she might make that happen, money she has earned by selling mix tapes and bracelets at school (both of which are forbidden) and by acting as a go-between for an older student and her boyfriend. Wadjda's activities put her on the radar of her school's headmistress, Ms. Hussa (Ahd Kamel), who threatens her with expulsion unless she straightens up and starts acting like a girl is supposed to, but Wadjda doesn't appear to take the criticisms to heart and merely develops new strategies to get what she wants.

Ms. Hussa begins to soften towards Wadjda when it appears that she's made an about face, joining the school's religious club and entering into a Qur'an recital contest. What no one realizes, however, is that Wadjda's motives have everything to do with the contest's prize money, which would be more than enough to allow her to buy the bike. As Wadjda toils and studies for the contest, her mother is contending with issues of her own. She's struggling to hang on to her husband, whom she knows will be lost to her forever if his family actually convinces him to take another wife, but at the same time testing the waters of what life would be like without him. She currently works as a teacher, which requires her to make a 3 hour commute each day, and a friend begins trying to talk her into applying for a job at a local hospital. When the mother goes to the hospital to fill out an application, she's shocked by the fact that her friend is working with her face uncovered and tells Wadjda that her father would never allow her to work under such conditions. But with her husband already having one foot out the door, Wadjda's mother begins to realize that the following rules about what girls and women should and shouldn't do is no guarantee to happiness - a realization that benefits no one more than Wadjda.

Filmed in simple, straightforward style, Wadjda is a film tailored largely to the strengths of a novice child actor. It doesn't call for huge emotions, but it manages to draw moments of subtlety and complexity out of Mohammed. From the first, Wadjda is marked as an iconoclast among her peers, her sneakers making for a sharp contrast compared to the shoes worn by the other girls, and although she's reminded repeatedly about how she should behave as a girl, she never really seems to let it affect her and remains firm in her desire to be herself and want the things that she wants, regardless of how other people react to it. Even when she receives a very public dressing down in the third act, it doesn't break her spirit because she's smart enough to recognize the hypocrisy of her accuser (and, by extension, the society dictating the so-called rules) and strong enough to be disappointed without being defeated. As a character, Wadjda is a solid and compelling figure to base a story around, and al-Mansour is able to bring a performance out of Mohammed which is engaging and which carries the film in a way that seems effortless.

As written by al-Mansour, Wadjda is a film which has sociopolitical concerns that it explores throughout but which never become overbearing. The narrative continually circles back to the issues facing women in a society that is so rigidly patriarchal that a woman can be seen as having lost her "value" if men she doesn't know so much as hear her laugh, but it weaves its social commentary into the story in a way that seems to flow from it naturally. As a director, al-Mansour brings a light touch to the film that forces nothing and makes moments such as the one when Wadjda first lays eyes on the bike (the bike is on the roof of a van and the way the shot is framed, with the roof of the van hidden behind a wall, it makes it look as though the bike is floating on air) seem magical without losing an ounce of the realism in which the film is grounded. Wadjda is a film which layers strength upon strength and while it marks many firsts, it will hopefully not be the last of its kind in any of those respects.

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