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Beyond being a well told, charming and ultimately touching film, this tale of a young girl trying to find a place for herself amidst the sexist rules of Saudi Arabia is noteworthy for a number of things, chief among them that it’s the first film shot completely in Saudi Arabia and the first Saudi feature ever made by a woman director, who had to hide in a van and direct by walkie-talkie for a number of scenes. (Movie theaters themselves are outlawed in the country).
The story is largely a familiar underdog tale, and the pace can be too leisurely at times, but the specifics that surround the main character – her mother’s emotional struggle with the possibility her husband may take a second wife against her wishes, the absurd danger of a pre-adolescent girl simply having a boy pal, the constant teaching that women shouldn’t even be heard by men, help the film feel more unique and disturbing than all the western equivalent. “outcast kid joins contest to prove their worth” films we’ve seen. Indeed, even the contest here is loaded with complexity. Wadjda isn’t particularly religious, but the contest is about a verbal recitation of sections of the Koran, so she takes it on as a means to an end (money to buy a bike she wants – another thing girls aren’t supposed to have), not as expression of piety.
If not quite as powerful as some films about repression, it’s certainly a worthy and well acted one, and a brave leap for a film-maker whose greatest triumph may have been getting the film made at all.
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71 of 74 people found the following review helpful
4.5 stars... "You won't be able to have kids if you ride a bike!"Oct. 19 2013
- Published on Amazon.com
"Wadjda" (2012 release from Saudi Arabia; 98 min.) brings the story of Wadjda, a young girl (I'm guessing 10 or 11 yr. old), an only child living with her mom in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Her dad is often absent due to work, and in addition we later learn he is considering taking a second wife who could bear him a son. Wadjda is a free spirit, wearing western style shoes and clothes and listening to 'evil music' (that would be Grouplove) on the radio. She is friends with a young boy who has a bike and it is her dream to get her own bike, so that she can race him and beat him. Alas, she cannot afford to buy a bike herself as is costs 800 Riyals. But as luck would have it, her school is holding a Koran competition where the winner will get 1,000 Riyals. To tell you more of the plot would surely ruin your viewing experience, you'll just have to see for yourself how it all plays out.
Several comments: first of all, the fact that this movie was made at all is nothing short of a small miracle (the first movie shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, a country where there are no movie theatres), and that it was directed by a woman (another first), Haifaa al-Mansour, is even more astonishing. Writer-director al-Mansour brings us a compassionate story of freedom (or the lack thereof) and what it means to grow up as a woman in Saudi Arabia. While of course a good part of the story focuses on the young girl, equally important (and biting) is what happens to her mother, who must rely on a driver to get her to her job (women aren't allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia) and who must try and charm/convince her husband not to seek a second wife (which is allowed under Saudi law). In fact, the movie screams "suffocation" and "suppression" from start to finish, just watch the multiple scenes at Wadjda's all-girls school (boys and girls are taught separately in Saudi), and even at home (where her mom reminds Wadjda to keep her voice down so as not to be heard outside by men since "a woman's voice is her nakedness"). Wadjda's mom is exasperated that her daughter wants to get a bike, and tries everything to talk her out of it, including cautioning Wadjda that "you won't be able to have kids if you ride a bike"... And maybe it's just me, but I find it unsettling to see women walk around in full "abaya", where at most only the eyes are visible, as if these women are the cause of all evil but men are free to do as they please. That said, this movie does provide a unique glimpse into what day-to-day live is really like in a place like Riyadh, and yet another reason to make this a must-see movie. The performances are generally top-notch, none more so than Waad Mohammed as the free-spirited young girl, but certainly Reem Abdullah as her mother is worth mentioning. Last but not least, the music for this movie, scored by Max Richter, is just beautiful (the soundtrack is available here on Amazon).
I had seen the trailer for this movie a number of times and couldn't wait to see this. The movie finally opened this weekend at my local art-house theatre here in Cincinnati and I went to see it right away. I am happy to say that the screening where I saw this at was PACKED, which hopefully indicates a strong and lasting interest/demand for this movie. I see a LOT of movies and this movie is one of the best I've seen this year, period. If you are in the mood for a quality foreign movie that will open your horizons and along the way teach a few things about humanity, you cannot go wrong with this. "Wadjda" is HIGHLY, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!
18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
First-time Saudi female director's 'baby steps' for women's rights represent gargantuan steps over thereFeb. 8 2014
- Published on Amazon.com
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Rating: 3.5 out of 5.0
When it comes to women in Saudi Arabia, don't expect any gargantuan steps. Of course this is a society where women are not allowed to drive. So the release of Haifaa Al-Mansour's 'Wadjda', the first feature by a Saudi female director, should be considered groundbreaking. Given the constraints placed on women, it's amazing 'Wadja' was made at all; at times, director Al-Mansour was forced to direct the film via walkie-talkie from a van, as she was not permitted to mingle with men, while filming.
But it's better to look at the film objectively and evaluate it like any other film as opposed to admiring it simply because it also represents a first-time, pioneering effort. The story is simple: Wadjda is a young girl who lives with her mother and attends an all-girls state-run school. The father is usually not at home, having given up on his wife who has not produced a son, and now may be searching for a second wife, much to Wadjda's mother's chagrin.
Wadjda befriends a bicycle-riding boy, Abdullah, and her goal is to best him in a bicycle race. All she has to do is come up with the cash to purchase a bicycle at a local store. She finally has a chance of realizing her dream by earning the top prize in a Koran-reading contest at school.
'Wadjda' is on solid ground as a critique of Saudi society's treatment of women. Reem Abdullah as Wadjda's mother steals the show as a woman constantly placed in untenable situations. When we're first introduced to her, she is dependent on a male driver, who she depends on to drive her a long distance to her job. The driver eventually declines to transport her anymore as he claims the mother is always late, and it takes a little trickery on the part of Wadjda and Abdullah to get him to change his mind (Abdullah pretends that he has an 'uncle' who can get him deported as apparently the driver is not a Saudi citizen).
Much worse than the situation with the driver, is Wadjda's mother's status in the home. When faced with the prospect of her husband taking a second wife, she pleads, "I'm the original brand, why are you leaving for an imitation?" The mother is a nuanced character as she also has a conservative, insular outlook, typical of most people in Saudi society. She criticizes a friend who has taken a job at a hospital, where she greets people without wearing a scarf to hide her face. And when Wadjda asks whether it's okay that Abdullah use their roof to hang up some wire across a courtyard to promote his uncle's election campaign, she refuses with the close-minded retort that Abdullah's relatives did not belong to their family's 'tribe'.
Wadjda's school is also a hotbed of sedition amongst the young girl and teenagers who attend there. Wadjda's protest takes the form of wearing sneakers as opposed to the standard issue shoes the girls are supposed to wear. Wadjda keeps quiet when two older girls are accused of forbidden activities including reading women's magazines, putting on makeup and drawing tattoos on their ankles as well as some chaste meetings with boys and even fraternizing among themselves in too friendly a manner. The school is run with an iron hand by the hypocritical Miss Hussa, who is rumored to have had an affair with a man but warms up to Wadjda when she decides to enter the Koran-reading contest.
When Wadjda wins the contest, it didn't make a lot of sense that she confesses she's planning to buy the bicycle with the prize money as the end result is that Miss Hussa reneges on the offer and instead, donates the money for Palestinian aid (in reality, Wadjda's smart enough not to act so dumb if she wants to get what she wants).
As a symbol of revolt against a strict patriarchal society, Wadjda fits the bill as a spunky mouthpiece. But as a fully realized character, Kenneth Tynan of the LA Times gets it right when he questions the character's credibility: "It also doesn't help that Wadjda herself is a cliché rebel, a headstrong, borderline bratty type whose smart-mouth attitude is supposed to charm us with its spunk but can also irritate by its rudeness. A little of this goes a long way, especially in a film that has such a leisurely pace."
The climax to 'Wadjda' is heartfelt, as Wadjda's mom finally decides to join the 'revolution' and purchases the wonderful present for her daughter. But what exactly has the 'revolution' accomplished? Wadjda leaves Abdullah in the dust when they race one another, but what will become of Wadjda in a few years? Married off to a man and perhaps cast off for a second wife, just like her mother? Wadjda's defiance may be tempered in the future, but at least her actions represent a triumph over complacency. I guess in Saudi Arabia, we should be happy for baby steps and thankful that the film was made at all!
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
FOREIGN FILM COMES HOMEFeb. 26 2014
- Published on Amazon.com
It would be easy to take the big blockbuster released this week (in this case THOR: THE DARK WORLD) and write about it. By the same token I could write about a B movie making its way to DVD this week. But just for something different I thought I'd mention a small foreign film that's made its way to DVD that deserves some attention.
Foreign films don't attract a lot of attention in the U.S. like most films do. It usually seems that a select elite class of film viewer watches these films or collectors of foreign films. We here seem to think that if someone can't take the time to make the movie in our language it isn't worth viewing. That sort of thinking means that so many great movies are not seen by a larger group of people in this country. It also means that we think far too much of ourselves when it comes to movies too.
Not only do foreign films give us the opportunity to see some great movies it also opens the doors for us to see and understand a different culture than our own, a different world than the one we live in. There are a number of jokes out there about 'Muricans with redneck ways and an attitude that we are always the best. With the world of DVD open to everyone you now have the chance to see that there are some great movies being made around the world, even if you have to read subtitles to see them.
With that I'd like to talk about WADJDA. Wadjda is a 10 year old Saudi Arabian girl with dreams of her own. Living in Riyadh, Wadjda pushes the boundaries of a girl in her culture, choosing to listen to rock music and developing an entrepreneurial attitude by creating shoelace bracelets that support various teams and selling them to classmates. Her home life is better than most but not perfect. Her mother nearly died during childbirth which means she can not bear a male child for her husband. This opens the door for him to find another wife who can. But that's down the road when the film opens.
Wadjda goes to school and is viewed as a rebel there, even while other girls are doing far more outlandish things. While they paint their nails and read magazine, Wadjda is the most obvious rebel wearing tennis shoes instead of the black shoes the other girls wear and never seeming to be able to keep her scarf on her head. Her best friend is a young boy named Abdulah. As with most young boy and girl friends, they tease one another and call names but remain close. Wadjda is envious of her friend's bicycle and promises to buy one of her own even though the custom there is for girls to not ride bicycles since it would destroy their "virtue". As you can see, a different culture than ours already.
As Wadjda's mother struggles to keep her husband from taking on a second wife, she has little time to keep a closer eye on her daughter. Wadjda begins finding new ways to make money in the hopes of saving to buy the new bicycle she saw at the local toy store. But each money making idea she comes up with brings her closer to the edge of social acceptance and expulsion or shame at school. When they announce a contest that involves studying the Koran which involves memorization and understanding of the text, the prize for which is more than enough money for her needs, Wadjda enters.
While she studies for the contest Wadjda never really digs into the text she's remembering. It is all about trying to win, not about really learning. Whether or not she does win and what happens when she does/doesn't makes for an interesting film.
While the story isn't complicated and rather straightforward, the movie does hold your interest from start to finish. You never have an edge of your seat moment here but you find yourself caring for both the characters of Wadjda and her mother. And while the strict enforcement of this male dominated society is ever present, the hope for change can be seen in the acts and eyes of young Abdullah. You not only want Wadjda to win, you want to see her on the bicycle before the end of the film.
Much has been noted about the production behind the scenes of this film. To begin with it was actually filmed in Saudi Arabia, a country that views films as sinful, especially with a subject content like this. On top of that the film was directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, a female director. While the cast and crew followed custom as closely as possible, they were able to produce a film that can be enjoyed by all.
Take a chance and open up the door to a new experience. Allow yourself to watch at least one foreign film with an open mind and a chance to see the world. If you have the chance, let this be that film and find out that not all foreign films are snobbish or elitist. Some just tell a story and do it well. WADJDA is one of those.
19 of 24 people found the following review helpful
An extraordinary filmDec 2 2013
- Published on Amazon.com
I agree with everything Paul Allaer writes in his review and I will not repeat the plot outline he offers – all the essential details are there.
Wadjda is an extraordinary film. It reminded me of some of the best films from other countries in Western Asia, like Iran and Turkey, more so the film «The Day I Became a Woman» by Marzieh Meshkini, where the bicycle is again seen as a vehicle of protest and freedom in a strict and oppressive society.
Although Wadjda is a simple tale, it is extremely well made; its pace is superb, without a boring moment. Such comments fit a large number of films, so what makes this one stick out is the opportunity it offers us to have a look at a society which is notoriously secretive.
The effect this look creates is one of extreme suffocation. The only point I want to make is related to this feeling of suffocation. In a certain respect this effect is similar to one created by the dystopian soft sci-fi films. These films are based on a «what if» premise: for example what if Britain was conquered by Germany in WW II as in the film «It Happened Here» or what if a society banned and burned all books as in «Fahrenheit 451».
However, the film that reminded me most was «Never Let Me Go» where a certain class of people is ‘cultivated’ in order to provide donor organs for transplants to the ‘real’ people. The most horrifying aspect of that film was the portrayal of the ‘donors’ as mainly accepting this fate. They were educated to accept this as inevitable.
The most worrying aspect of Wadjda is exactly Saudi girl education which aims to make them accept their fate (is that a comment for all education?). In the film, education seems to be successful as Saudi women have internalized their secondary status to a point where they have great difficulties in envisioning a different way of behaving. Thankfully the film is more positive than this implies, because in the person of Wadjda (and on a secondary level of a friend of her mother) we are offered hope that there is potential for change; perhaps not revolutionary but at least gradual willingness by women there to demand more rights.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Optimistic Tale of Triumph Over AdversityDec 11 2013
Dr. Laurence Raw
- Published on Amazon.com
WADJDA is a straightforward tale of a young girl Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) growing up in a suburb of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, who wants to buy a bicycle. Unable to find the money to do so, she enters a competition to speak the Koran in public with a substantial cash prize. After considerable time spent studying the text, she wins the competition, but sadly doesn't receive the money. In the end, however, she achieves her dreams - but not in the way she expects. Haifaa Al-Mansour's film is noteworthy for being a woman's film directed by a woman; it shows in careful detail the ways in which women's lives are constructed in Saudi Arabia, as well as showing how influential the Koran is in determining people's behavior. Some viewers might think that the women's lives are unfairly restricted; the film suggests that this is what many women believe is the right thing to do. By doing so, WADJDA shows how different people embraces different concepts of Islam. On the other hand, the film also suggests that individuals - especially children - should have at least some means to express themselves, particularly when they have worked to hard to achieve their aims. To restrict them is also to repress them; and this ultimately leads them to accept subordination as a way of life. WADJDA proves that the opposite should be true; not only for Wadjda herself but also for her mother (Reem Abdullah).