Breaking Taboo, by Josh Long
You may already be familiar with the films of the Middle East. Israel has had a burgeoning film growth in recent years, Iran’s cinema has been internationally recognized since the 80s. In 2012, the Iranian-made A Separation garnered praise and positive reception all over the world. I have been particularly interested with film from this part of the world in the last few years. So going into Wadjda I wondered, “why haven’t I seen any other films from Saudi Arabia (or as they refer to it, “The Kingdom”)?” The reason, as it turns out, is because The Kingdom has traditionally considered film an immoral waste of time; movie theaters have been banned since the 1980s, and all television programming is strictly regulated and censored by the government. Wadjda is the first feature film shot entirely within Saudi Arabia. In a country that is not only strict, but strictly patriarchal, it is fascinating that the first Saudi to direct a full feature there is a woman.
The situation of women in the Kingdom is the subject of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s film. Wadjda is a young girl growing up in Riyadh. She’s a troublemaker, a fun-loving spunky type whose Chuck Taylors are one of many things that make her stand out from the other girls at her strict religious school. She’s not the “respectable,” “acceptable” type of girl that the school is trying to raise, so she is constantly at odds with the overbearing principal. But the principal isn’t a solitary force of strictness. She’s an extension of a society that as a whole has a very narrow definition of what is “acceptable” for girls.
The major thrust of the story is Wadjda’s wish for a bike. She’s spotted a beautiful new one at the corner toy shop, and she’s got her heart set on it. The only problem is that bicycles are only for boys – they are seen as “dangerous for a girl’s virtue.” Her mother flatly refuses to buy it for her, so Wadjda decides to raise the money herself. But even if she’s able to, will her mother allow her to have it? Could she be kicked out of school? Will she be ostracized from society?
As a parallel to her story, Wadjda’s mother is consumed with the fear that her husband is going to take a second wife. Bigamy is both legal and socially acceptable in Saudi Arabia, and even though Wadjda’s mother may not want to share her husband with another woman, she doesn’t have much say in the matter. With this worry following her everywhere she goes, we begin to see her limits on Wadjda more in the context of a culture that could swiftly turn against her. She doesn’t want her daughter to suffer, to be thought of in such a way that makes her a pariah, or unfit for marriage. The only way she can see future happiness for her daughter is to make sure that she follows the rules.
One of the triumphs of the film is the complexity given the characters. The adults who hold back or discipline Wadjda all have naturally good intentions, but are themselves limited and disciplined by the world they inhabit. The mother-daughter relationship is strained at times, but is always strong, and always rooted in love. In the same way, the film could easily become a “battle of the sexes,” and portray men as boorish and selfish, and women as victims (such a ham-fisted, boring view of feminism can be found in American films such as Fried Green Tomatoes). But this film is full of good men – Wadjda’s friend Abdullah is always trying to help her (even once offering to give her his own bike), the man at the bike shop reserves the bike for her, even though he has no idea whether she’ll ever have enough to pay for it. Even her father – who is often absent and considers leaving the family to start a new one – has complex moral quandaries. He loves his wife and daughter, but influences from his family and from society weigh heavy on him. This is not a film that blames men for women’s problems; it is a film that examines a world where society has agreed to live by a certain set of standards, and the strain that occurs in realizing how unfair those standards can be.
Director Al-Mansour has a heart for the women of her nation. She has said that Saudi Arabia is full of strong women with big dreams – “these girls can, and will, reshape and redefine our nation.” She has brought a wonderful story of one such girl to life. She shows the strength and restraint of a filmmaker who wants to discuss important issues, but knows that there are no easy answers, nor obvious villains. She doesn’t create this film as an indictment of her homeland. But she does have the tenacity to ask “is this the way things should be?” Films like these are insightful and useful instruments for change.