Wadjda explores role of Saudi women

 By GAETANA CALDWELL-SMITH

“Wadjda,” a film written and directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour. In Arabic with English subtitles, filmed in and around Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Al-Mansour’s beautiful, thought-provoking film focuses on a mother and daughter who live in socially, religiously, and culturally male-dominated  Saudi Arabia. Here, females are so devalued they are not included in depictions of family trees, which are prominently displayed in living rooms.

The eponymous lead role of lanky 10-year-old Wadjda is played by soulful-eyed Waad Mohammed. Right off, you get that she wants to go her own way.  Wadjda listens to modern, American rock music on her CD player in her bedroom; she wears black and white Keds. She is a rebel; she speaks her mind to elders and tells the truth. Besides giving audiences a look into the lives of ordinary people in the capitol city of Riyadh, the film hints that Wadjda herself could be seen as the new face of women in that country.

Wadja’s best friend, Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), is a younger boy with flashing black eyes, who lives across the dusty, sandy street. A madras student, he wears a white gown and a white crocheted skullcap, as do his friends, even when playing and riding their bikes. He talks openly about idolizing suicide bombers. Though his father is a politician of a different tribe running for office, Mansour thoughtfully and intelligently understates this aspect of the characters’ lives.

Not yet teens, boys and girls play together and hang out. Wadjda envies Abdullah because he rides a bike. She wants one, feeling that it will allow her freedom. “You’ll lose your virginity. You can’t have children if you ride a bike,” her mother warns.  Wadjda is not dissuaded; abike becomes her goal.

Backpacks are routinely inspected at her school, run by Ms. Hussa played by Ahd, and forbidden items (music tapes, baseball cards) are tossed out. Ms. Hussa, though a strict principal (Wadjda is often called in to her office and threatened with expulsion), sports modern dress and hairstyle. Indoors, away from men, women can wear whatever they please. But before going out, they put on a full black abaya and black headscarf. Some go so far as to throw over their face a diaphanous, black scarf.

There’s a scene where Wadjda and her friends sing and talk loudly; an older woman shuts them up, saying that men can hear their voices. The film points out that females cannot attract attention to themselves in any way. In fact, women are not allowed anywhere in sight of men. Woman themselves enforce these rules. Still women can transact business with shopkeepers, i.e. men in lowly positions. There is something hauntingly beautiful in watching a group of covered, veiled women in black, only their eyes visible, flowing past the garish display windows of a modern shopping mall.

The film allows the audience to view how everyday life is lived in Wadjda’s home between her mother and father, where their culture is very different from that of the West. We also see a scene where religious police stop women on the street, rail at and threaten them for some perceived minor infraction.  Yet men freely spew lewd remarks at women as they walk by.

Wadjda’s mother and her handsome, fit father (Sultan Al Assaf) have separated because she could not give him a son. Wadjda adores him, as does her mother, played by voluptuous, dark-eyed Rheem Abdullah. Still, she is confident she can win him back. When visiting, he and Wadjda play video games. The mother is misinformed about an impending marriage, and the truth is devastating. Crushed, she and Wadjda watch the festivities from their balcony.

A contest for the best recitation of the Koran is offered, with the prize being more than enough to buy a bike; Wadjda changes her ways. She impresses everyone with her devotion to studying the Koran. When the contest is over, Ms. Hussa decides how the money will be spent when Wadja unabashedly blurts out her intention. One of the final scenes between Wadjda and her mother brought tears to my eyes. On her new bike, Wadjda heads for the open road and symbolic freedom with her friend, Abdullah.