Wadjda: A film about how things change

When it comes to renting movies, I have a list of the next 10 films we’re going to watch. C-Man, on the other hand, likes to browse. Especially in the new arrivals section. That’s where he found Wadjda.

It’s the first feature-length film made in Saudi Arabia, which has no movie theaters. It was written and directed by female filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour, who often wasn’t allowed to be on the set with the actors because of government restrictions on women. It’s about a middle-school age girl named Wadjda who’s earning money for a bicycle, though her culture frowns on girls riding bikes.

Could be depressing, right? Evil oppressors, helpless victims, wrenching of heartstrings about various plights? Fear not! Al-Mansour knows what she’s doing, and she’s intent on showing complexity rather than despair.

First we have Wadjda, played by Waad Mohammed. I loved the glint in her eye whenever she spotted a new money-making opportunity. Contraband handmade bracelets, message delivery services (with some double-billing going on!), and finally, signing up for the school’s Koran recitation competition. Which blows everyone’s mind, since her purple shoelaces and disregard for the rules don’t exactly mesh with devout memorization of a holy book. But she’s not an angry rebel fighting against authority. She’s just a kid who wants a bike so she can win a race. She’s going to do whatever works.

Next, her mother, played by Saudi television star Reem Abdullah. At first I read her character as a demonstration of how adult Saudi women are trapped by their culture. Only certain jobs, only certain ways of dressing. But when a friend offers her a new job at a local hospital with very different opportunities, the contrast between their two experiences is intriguing. A good reminder not to reduce women’s lives to one story, even in the same time, place, and social class!

Actor and short film director Ahd plays Ms. Hussa, the headmistress of Wadjda’s school. If you’re looking for a villain of the piece, it’s tempting to pick her. Ms. Hussa is the enforcer, the morality police, and her preferred tactics are shame and public humiliation. But she remarks that Wadjda reminds her of her younger self. You have to wonder, what happened to her to change her so much?! Chilling thought… which evokes some sympathy despite her appalling behavior. The other teacher we meet, the leader of the Koran club, seems like a nice person instead of a scary robot. So, even the authority figures are on a spectrum of how much they’re willing to crush people into “proper” behavior.

The male characters also defy simple stereotypes, from Wadjda’s often-absent father (who clearly needs a spine!) to the shopkeeper bemused by Wadjda’s insistence the bike is meant to be hers. Wadjda’s young male friend, played by Abdullrahman Al Gohani, is growing up in a politically powerful and presumably traditional family, yet he cherishes Wadjda as a friend even though she’s a girl who often beats him in athletic endeavors.

Wadjda doesn’t shy away from showing difficult and painful situations, but the overall message is one of hope. That people can change, that society is evolving, even if progress is often uneven. It’s a movie with a lot of humor, and the actors are spot on. I’m hoping to see Waad Mohammed in future acting roles.

Definitely recommended! If you do have a chance to watch it, don’t miss the “making of” feature and interviews with Al-Mansour.

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