Burqas and Bikers
Time to stroke another bandicoot – which is, of course, 24LAS code for looking at a product of world cinema as opposed to something drearily Anglophonic (I have to ask: do Godzilla movies count as ‘world cinema’? My local DVD retailer evidently thinks not). Getting quite a wide UK release and some rave reviews at present is Haifaa al-Mansour’s Wadjda, the first film in the history of Saudi Arabia to be written and directed by a woman.
This really ties into the themes of Wadjda as a story. Wadjda is the name of the main character, a rebellious twelve-year-old girl, brought to life by a remarkable performance by Waad Mohammed. She is constantly chafing under the restrictions of life in the KSA: her mother (Reem Abdullah) is traditionally-minded and disapproves of her doing things like listening to Western music on the radio. The fact that her parents’ marriage is under stress, with her father contemplating taking a second wife, is a problem, but the main thing on Wadjda’s mind is a bicycle. Her friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Algohani) has one, and she wants one too. But as everyone insists on telling her, well-behaved, respectable girls don’t ride bicycles, and where is she going to get the money from anyway? When her ferociously strict head teacher (Ahd Kamel) announces they are going to have a Koran-reciting competition at school, with a big cash prize for the winner, Wadjda has an idea...
I know what you’re probably thinking: a worthy-but-depressing subtitled low-budget drama about the plight of girls and women under the oppressive misogynistic regime of an Islamic theocracy? No thanks, I’m off to see One Direction: This is Us. Well, you have the right to that choice (although, by the way, anyone choosing to see the One Direction film is officially barred from this column in perpetuity), but you will be missing a subtle, touching, and far from grim or downbeat film filled with great performances. (I know the obvious route to go down for a bicycle-related film set in an Islamic state is to break out the ‘Look, no hands!’ jokes, but I honestly couldn’t bring myself to sneak any in.)
One of the many clever things about Wadjda is the way in which it manages to fundamentally be about the way in which womens’ lives are curtailed by a patriarchal society while still featuring hardly any men. Only Abdullah, who is just a boy, gets any significant screen-time – all the other male characters are fleeting presences. Perhaps it’s their very absence as people which makes the impact of their rules on the lives of the characters so striking: Wadjda and her mother must constantly guard against being seen or heard by any man outside their immediate family, one of the stresses in the marriage is the expense of paying for a driver for her mum (women aren’t allowed to drive themselves), Wadjda lives in fear of being ‘married off’ despite her tender age, and so on. For a Western viewer the effect is disconcerting – it’s like being thrust into a society as alien as anything in the average SF or fantasy film.
Al-Mansour is, as I said, a woman herself, and I would imagine that the making of Wadjda would constitute a fascinating tale in its own right. That said, the film is notably lacking in any sense of rage or despair about the lot of women in the KSA – this is simply how things are, seems to be the message. On the other hand, Wadjda’s cheeky defiance of, and even subversion of, her elders’ expectations is hugely endearing and affirmatory, and I don’t think this was unintentional. Is the film really lobbying for widespread change in the treatment of women? I don’t know; as a liberal westerner it would be very easy to jump to that conclusion (and I’d be letting my own experience of the Islamic forced-marriage tradition colour my perspective). I would be reluctant to do much more than say that Wadjda’s rebellion is presented as a hopeful and positive thing. Even this is done in a clear but nicely-understated way. Al-Mansour's grasp of storytelling is excellent and hopefully this film will open many doors for her (I still doubt she'll be directing the next Marvel movie though).
As I said, Waad Mohammed is engaging and very natural as Wadjda herself, recognisably a girl on the verge of teenagerhood no matter what her native culture. It’s an astonishingly assured performance given this was apparently her first acting role. Equally as good is Reem Abdullah as her mum, who invests her character with pathos, strength, and a wealth of suggested emotion. The mother-daughter relationship is at the core of the film; occasional exceptions like Brave notwithstanding, it’s not a dynamic much explored in mainstream western cinema, but here it’s wholly engaging and some of the scenes between them as the story progresses are extremely moving.
It’s always nice to be able to swim against the tide, but when it comes to Wadjda I find myself being swept along by the same current as everyone else. This is a charming, beautifully made film. If you only go and see one feminist Saudi Arabian girl bicyclist film this year... oh, hang on, that’s not going to work. Just go and see it anyway.