Tuesday, March 12, 2013

'Wadjda' (2012) directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

Wadjda is an astonishing film for two main reasons; it's the first feature film shot fully in Saudi Arabia and more on top of that the director (Haifaa Al-Mansour) is a woman,.  Women directors are feature films are something that happens rarely enough in the West, let alone in the Middle East.  The film tells us the story of Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) an intelligent, mischievously inclined 10 year old girl.  She's got a rock solid sense of her own identity, a trait that sets her against the authoritarian society she lives in.  Her ambition throughout the film is simple: to own a shiny green bicycle.  There are two things standing in the way of this pretty small scale goal; firstly, raising the money; and secondly (and more importantly) that girls don't ride bicycles (the characters in the film seem to believe it will spoil a girl's virginity).

The scale of the story aside, Wadjda quickly becomes a portrait of an intensely repressive society, one where teachers inform their students that "a woman's voice is her nakedness", where girls walking home from school must suffer sexual jibes from men asking to feel their "little apples", where 10 year old girls show off their wedding pictures and where, ultimately, the entire worth of a woman's existence is wrapped up their virginity and ability to reproduce.  To Western eyes it's a misogynist nightmare: hellish, sand blasted authoritarian misery.  

Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) and her much desired bicycle
But contrary to how grim that sounds, Wadjda is actually a warm-hearted and frequently very funny film.  Even deep in this mire of oppression, networks of support and tiny acts of personal disobedience constantly take place.  Wadjda herself is instantly charismatic, the performance by Waad Mohammed imbuing her with an energetic spark.  She rubs up against social conventions purely through virtue of her existence rather than through conscious acts of rebellion.  Wadjda demonstrates what expectations Saudi society has for its women (primarily to shut up and make babies), but our lead doesn’t fit into this: she’s a square peg that everyone is trying to force into a round hole.  

Everyone around her has decided to some degree what they want her to be; her school ruthlessly stamps out creative thinking and individuality amongst its pupils and even her generally supportive mother gently prods her towards conformity.  But these efforts by others feel futile and tellingly, even when clad in shapeless black robes, her Chuck Taylor sneakers defiantly poke out from under the hem.  This, and her love of pop music make Wadjda feel like a pleasant echo of Marjane Satrapi in Persepolis; both young, intelligent girls asserting their individuality in the face of religious oppression.   

As a character Wadjda carries a heavy burden.  As the lead in the first Saudi Arabian feature film, and an overtly feminist film at that, she’s been created to teach us the indignities and misery that Saudi society foists upon its women.  But she doesn’t directly preach social change, a choice that would make her a mere vehicle for the director’s views - she always acts in a realistically child-like way.  This makes her immediately familiar to us, and quickly we understand her motivations and mindset.  She has flashes of precocious maturity that elevate her above her peers, but because her ambition to own a bicycle is so small-scale it drags a big story down to a personal level. Viewing the world from her perspective also goes some way in transforming the intense oppression she faces into farce.  To bring these byzantine, oppressive rules to bear on a child makes the oppressors seem faintly ridiculous.

Even though the film focuses on exploring this world from Wadjda's point of view, we spend quite a bit of time examining the plight of her mother (Reem Abdullah), who is desperate to stop her husband from taking a second wife.  Wadjda's birth was so difficult that it's left her unable to have any more children, a situation which the film implies makes her redundant as a wife and as a woman. She's a relatively liberal mother, and the bond between the two is palpable.  This relationship provides strength to both characters, allowing them to display an emotional honesty behind closed doors that wider society would rather they keep to themselves.

Wadjda's mother, as played by Reem Abdullah
Even though the film takes pains to be even-handed, and never openly condemns the society it examines, it’s still difficult not to feel increasingly angry by what you’re seeing on screen.  It feels like every scene contains a new litany of crimes against women, almost to the point of ridiculousness.  There’s a temptation to dance around the gender politics, to examine it dispassionately through a lens of cultural relativism.  But this is dishonest. Wadjda in particular is such a readily identifiable archetype that I can’t help but judge these viciously stupid religious sexists by liberal Western standards and find them lacking in both intelligence and morality.

And, frankly, I think I’m perfectly entitled to.  This is naturalistic, almost journalistic film-making, showing us events that aren’t taking place in some distant time or place, they're happening right now.  Tens of thousands of women are being treated like chattel, one step up the economic chain from livestock, an idea that slowly fills you with horror.  I'm conscious of the fact that I'm looking down my nose in disgust at impossibly complex social systems rooted in political circumstances I don't know about, a religion I have a layman's understanding of and a regional history I don't understand.  But watching Wadjda slices away all that hand-wringing bollocks like a razor blade - to treat women like this is monstrous and criminal.

Haifaa Al-Mansour has created a seriously powerful film that lets you draw your own conclusions and be suitably horrified.  I understand that during production she had to direct from within a van to prevent angry, conservative men from disrupting the filming.  Saudi Arabia has a long, long way to go, and judging from this change will be difficult and hard fought.  But then if films like Wadjda can be created within this black hole of misogyny there is a faint sparkle of light from the end of the tunnel.


Wadjda is on general release from 19th July 2013

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