Wadjda (2013); written/directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

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The behind-the-scenes stories would be enough to put Wadjda in the history books: The first film to be shot inside Saudi Arabia. By a Saudi director. A female Saudi director. Because of the restrictions placed on women in the public sphere, director Haifaa Al-Mansour could not be out on the streets of Riyadh with her actors, she had to be holed up in a truck nearby, watching on the monitors, and communicating through walkie-talkies or cell phones with those out on the street. The cast is all Saudi. Al-Mansour wrote the script and it is a personal vision of her nation, including celebratory aspects as well as criticism.

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Wadjda shows, in ways oblique and overt, what happens in a culture that shares a vested interest in turning women into literally non-persons. But what is also there in the film is a funny and well-told story about a very real little girl, trying to get along at school, trying to get along with her parents, trying to get away with as much as possible without getting in trouble, basically. She’s a wisecracker. She’s an eye roller. She’s played with beautiful natural-ness by the remarkable Waad Mohammed. The way she lolls on the couch playing a rugby video game with her dad is a perfect example: her body language is totally relaxed, there is no self-conscious “acting” happening. Many of her scenes are with the phenomenal Reem Abdullah, the actress playing her mother, arguably the biggest (and really only) female star in Saudi Arabia. The two of them create a poignant and extremely real mother-daughter relationship. There are other Saudi artists involved (including the excellent Ahd, who plays the severe principal at Wadjda’s school), but many of them have had to travel to Europe or America in order to study film, make films, work. But Reem Abdullah has stayed in Saudi Arabia. I have never seen her work before (she stars in a popular Saudi television series), and she’s fantastic in Wadjda. The layers she reveals of her character’s experience, the amount of stuff she allows us to see (insecurity, judgment, despair, rage, helplessness, gentleness, vanity, sexual anxiety and desire) … it’s fearless, especially considering that the “Saudi woman” is practically non-existent in terms of representation out there in the world of art. Mostly we just see fully-cloaked-and-covered figures. Reem Abdullah is a pioneer, too.

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The plot:

10-year-old Wadjda wants to get a bike. Her best friend is a little boy named Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), and he has a bike, and she wants to race him. But bikes cost money. Bikes are also “not for girls.” Her mother warns, you might lose your virginity while riding one. But Wadjda is the type of person who will not take No for an answer. So she begins a secret campaign to raise enough money to buy the bike she wants, a gleaming green beauty she first sees floating above a wall on back of a truck like a vision from a dream, and then parked on the sidewalk outside of a toy store. That’s her bike.

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In order to raise money, she makes twisted yarn bracelets and sells them at school, up-selling them to unwitting classmates. She’s a natural hustler. Any time anyone asks her to do something, she puts a price on it. “Sure, I’ll take that note to that boy outside for you … it’ll cost you 20 riyals.” In one upsetting scene with Abdullah, her little friend, she starts to cry with frustration over something, hiding her face in her hands. Abdullah is 10 years old. He loves his friend. He does not know how to handle the situation and finally says, “I’ll give you 10 riyals if you stop crying.” Without looking up, Wadjda shoots her hand out. It’s hilarious.

She bargains and hustles the store manager (Ibrahim Almozael, his performance cracked my heart!), trying to talk him down from his original price. The answer is always No, but he does “hold” the bike for her, reserving it until she can raise the money. He looks at her, and you can tell he quietly admires her, he wants her to get the bike. He won’t GIVE it to her, though, because what would be the lesson in THAT.

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Wadjda is an indifferent student, but when she hears that there will be a Quran-recitation competition with a money-prize for first place that could get her that bike with money to spare, she signs up for the competition and puts her nose to the grindstone. It’s sheer drudgery at first. Her religious teacher is frustrated with her, praising the other students, warning them that if they have their period they have to touch the book with Kleenexes. All of the girls giggle. The religious teacher snaps, “You think it’s funny? It’s not funny.” This is a tough woman to please, man. Wadjda is daunted by what she has to do, but she remembers how much she wants that dreamy green bike.

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The limitations placed on the filming, its pioneering aspect, the danger surrounding the whole endeavor might make one tempted to grade the film on a curve. Thankfully, Wadjda doesn’t need that. It’s a remarkable achievement, confident and deep, funny and angry, and the story (more complex than it seems on the surface) holds together in taut and loose ways, similar to the multiple threads woven together to make bracelets like the ones Wadjda sells in school.

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The moment where Wadjda first gets a glimpse of the bike is a perfect example of Al-Mansour’s visual sense, its magic and energy, its perfect right-ness for the moment. Wadjda wanders aimlessly through a dusty construction lot, her veil falling off her head in the wind, and she suddenly stops, seeing something in the distance. At that moment of connection, the camera starts moving away from her, quickly, at an angle, emblematic of the emotion of the moment and also representing the thing that she is looking at, moving away from her. In the next moment, we see what she sees: there’s a white wall on the edge of the construction lot, and beyond that is a busy road full of traffic. Floating above it, on the back of an unseen truck, is a green bike. The camera swoops along, following the bike, moving away from Wadjda, and then moving back in to her, as her eyes follow the vision into the bright desert distance.

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The final 10 minutes of the film brings a release of emotion that made me think my heart would burst.

Wadjda is not a stand-in or a symbol for Oppressed Womankind. But, of course, throughout the film, incessantly, she is reminded that the world is not set up for her freedom, or for her getting what she wants, in things large or small. She is about to “come of age,” and girls disappear completely into marriage (and under the full abbayah) at extremely young ages (one of her classmates, a pudgy girl of around 12 years old, is married off). Wadjda does not even experience that larger world as unfair, or not in a way that consumes her every thought. What is the MOST unfair is that no one will let her have a bike! THAT’S the real injustice.

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Keeping the focus on that bicycle allows the film enormous freedom to make its larger points, to weave in the problems of the adult world, as well as the truly uneasy worry, trembling throughout, over what will happen to Wadjda. Will she get her bike, for sure is an important question. But what then? She’s smart and capable and she also has a high tolerance for sticking-to-it through unpleasant tasks, all qualities that will make a wonderful well-rounded adult. But what is there for her in Saudi Arabia? Marriage in a couple of years? Even her strict traditional mother has moments of uncertainty, and her lashing out at Wadjda about her tomboyish-ness, her desire for a bike, is really a lashing-out at the world that will not just let her daughter be whoever she wanted to be. SHE wasn’t allowed to be who she wanted to be, why should her daughter experience anything different? And so tyranny is passed down. It’s an inner tyranny.

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There is a strong critique of the whole women-aren’t-allowed-to-drive issue, an issue that has made international news in the last 10 years, with various protests spearheaded by Saudi women. Wadjda’s mum works, but she can’t drive to work, and so Wadjda’s dad has to devote a large amount of his salary to pay for a private driver. This causes resentment, economic and otherwise. It inhibits women, for sure (there’s a great shot of the big van filled with veiled women, waiting to be driven to their destination), but it also inhibits men. It’s a waste of money, first of all, and it also places regular guys in a patriarchal position which sucks, all around. Nobody is happy. This is an often un-talked-about aspect of misogynistic cultures, and Wadjda portrays it head-on, especially in the character of Iqbal (Mohammed Zahir), the guy hired to drive Wadjda’s mother to work. He is rude to Wadjda’s mum, abusive even. As far as he is concerned, he is driving around worse than second-class citizens, he’s got a bunch of animals in his car, and he has no compunction about treating them contemptuously. Wadjda sasses him to his face, “You have no manners!” and Wadjda’s mum also reprimands him for his tone, but what else can she do? She’s trapped.

The film works so well, ultimately, because of director Haifaa Al-Mansour’s meticulous and emotional brick-by-brick approach to the collage of events that make up the film. The mother and father’s relationship. The strict principal of the school disciplining girls for laughing out loud in public, or playing hopscotch in the school yard where men can see them. The boring-ness of school lessons. The comfort of forbidden pop songs on cassette tapes. Wadjda’s sometimes-fraught sometimes-affectionate relationship with her mother. And the bike, the substance of things hoped for, the dreamworld of movement/motion/freedom! And there’s a whole other level of grownup-stuff going on in the periphery, stuff Wadjda picks up on but assumes, “Meh, that’s not my problem. I want my bike.” But it becomes her problem.

There’s a moment involving a diagram of Wadjda’s family tree that is, along with Jafar Panahi walking out into the waves of the Caspian Sea in Closed Curtain, the most painful image put onscreen last year.

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