Release Date: 19th July 2013
Director: Haifaa Al Mansour
Starring: Reem Abdullah, Waad Mohammed, Abdullrahman Algohani
One of the unique pleasures of experiencing art from other societies are the insights it can offer the viewer into that society. The Arabic culture of today is bred both of climate and circumstance, with the sudden wealth of an otherwise nomadic nation thrusting the country into the Westernised ideal of the 21st Century, whilst all the while staying fervently true to its religious, political and ideological beliefs. Haifaa Al Mansour’s exemplary debut demonstrates this without dwelling upon it, conveying a clear narrative with relatable characters that are nonetheless simply trying to survive within their own ideological system.
The narrative is a simple tale of a headstrong 11-year old Saudi Arabian girl living in the capital of Riyadh, who dreams of nothing more than owning a certain green bike she covetously spies in the dusty display of a local store. The titular Wadjda (the first film for the young Waad Mohammed) is both incredibly life affirming and sympathetic, as she quietly struggles within the system she has been born into. The film demonstrates the precipice that the Arab nation occupies, as Westernised ideals clash and combine with societies’ traditional beliefs. The videogame system in Wadjda’s home for example is used to play common action games, however it is later used as a tool to help with her Qur’an studies.
Al Mansour’s camera allows a remarkably unique insight into Riyadh, as the dusty desert sand finds its way into every frame and the architecture seems either brand new or under construction. For the most part the lens stays on young Wadjda, showing the world from her perspective and with her understanding. Waad Mohammed manages to wear her traditional garments, and by extension the traditions they represent, with an uncomfortable awkwardness. With her dirty converse and mess of hair escaping her headdress, she stands out from her classmates without ever being preciously nonconformist.
Much may be said about the fascinatingly tumultuous greater socio-political canvas of 21st Century Saudi Arabia that the film’s plot is painted on. Indeed the mere existence of the film represents a sizable shift in the relationship between traditional Arabic entertainment and the wider world – being both the first film to be shot entirely in Riyadh, and more remarkably the first to be shot by a Saudi woman (although Al Mansour studied in Cairo and Sydney, and the film was co-produced by several German companies – primarily Razor Films). The simple, gripping narrative allows the viewer into Arabic culture; through the eyes of a child we access this society with equal parts inquisitiveness, rebellion and acceptance. It does not proclaim to any grander comments on its setting, instead just allowing its viewer to connect to and root for its titular heroine – one of the most engaging screen characters this year, who is simply trying to exist within her world. Whilst providing a window into traditional Arabic society, this is Wadjda’s tale, and it deserves to be seen for that reason alone.