*** 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!