Both in front of and behind the camera, Wadjda is about crossing boundaries. Not only is it the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, it is the first one directed by a Saudi woman. In keeping with the theme of female empowerment, the film follows the spirited, entrepreneurial title character (Waad Mohammed ) — a Saudi preteen — as she single-mindedly defies her conservative community in pursuit of her own bicycle.
In her sneakers and jeans Wadjda easily stands out from her fellow classmates and constantly disregards her school’s strict standard of female behavior. In a culture where women are expected to be as subservient and invisible as possible, Wadjda not only back-talks her mother’s male driver (women are not allowed to drive), she fraternizes with a neighborhood boy who she is not related to. This sometimes competitive friendship is what spurs Wadjda’s desire for a bike, despite the belief in her community that riding a bike will tarnish a girl’s virtue.
After a few thwarted attempts to earn (and at times swindle) the money to buy the bike that has caught her eye, Wadjda enters her school’s Koran recitation competition in a final attempt to earn the funds she needs.
The film offers examples of a variety of Saudi women. In addition to Wadjda, her mother’s friend Leila (Sara Aljaber) represents more liberated women when she takes a better job despite the fact it involves working with men who are non-relatives. On the other hand, Wadjda’s mother (Reem Abdullah) represents a more forced conservatism. Although she is laid-back with her daughter in private, stress over her husband’s potential second marriage drives her to be more submissive and strict with Wadjda. The main representation and enforcer of tradition in the film, however, is the principal of Wadjda’s school, who constantly reprimands the girl for her defiant behavior.
Thus, as in many cultures throughout history, women in this film end up being the primary enforcers of the patriarchal values that suppress female independence. In fact, though the few male characters play minor roles, oftentimes they seem to have as little control over their fate as the women.
Despite the film’s deft portrayal of systemic suppression, the consequences of breaking these norms falls to the background and the stakes never feel very high. Although the film shows the humiliation of a pair of students at Wadjda’s school and the “marrying off” of another, it never really feels as if Wadjda could be at risk of a similar fate. Of course, the indiscretion of riding a bike would appear to be one of the lesser offences a young girl can commit. Also, this could simply be the result of the somewhat casual treatment of such punishments (such things being normal in Saudi culture) and a disconnect with American audiences unfamiliar with it.
Overall, Wadjda gives an authentic, subtle portrayal of Saudi women and one girl’s breaking of the mold. Although the dramatic elements fall a little flat, I appreciate that it is not a sensationalist tale. It’s feels like a story that could be about real, complex Saudi women going through their daily life. And that makes it worth checking out.
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Looks amazing. Great job, you guys!