‘Wadjda’ starts a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday, December 13th.
It’s vexing to run across a film that's intelligently, even artfully, presented, that has every good right-minded intention, and still be left fairly cold by it. All of those good ingredients (I tell myself), all of those higher aspirations – I find myself feeling guilty that it's not a better film, rather than just holding the filmmaker to account. But, by necessity, I, of course, must get over that.
Wadjda (Saudi Arabia / Germany, 2012) follows the modest adventures of ten-year-old Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), a smart and resourceful girl living in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, who prefers to wear blue jeans and Chuck Taylors under her traditional abaya cloak, listens to western pop music on her scratchy lo-fi radio, and endeavors to find the pre-adolescent middle-ground between the stifling realities of womanhood in Riyadh and the indulgences and privileges that she sees prominently displayed throughout the rest of her culture. And, like Razieh’s goldfish in Jafar Panahi’s The White Balloon, and Ralphie’s Red Rider BB gun in A Christmas Story, Wadjda finds an object that seems like an answer to her youthful wish-fulfillment prayers – a green bicycle (which comes into her view like T.E. Lawrence’s freighter ship on the Suez Canal) that will allow her the mobility and freedom that her bike-riding friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani) already enjoys. Of course, he’s a boy, so, yeah…, while Wadjda, a girl, has no culturally-appropriate business riding a bicycle. Her mother won’t even entertain the idea, but Wadjda is already formulating a varied strategy of underhanded scams and practical accomplishments that will get her the money to buy the bike herself.
While Wadjda’s own story is pleasantly propulsive (she eventually enters a Quran Recitation contest at her school in hopes of winning the 1000 rial prize), the two women Wadjda must deal with in her pursuit of the bicycle – her mother (a very good Reem Abdullah; while films are few and far between, TV is alive and well in Saudi Arabia, and she’s one of its most popular stars), who is dealing with a husband who may take a second wife to fulfill his wishes of a male heir, and her stern school principal Miss Hussa (Ahd; funny name, impressive CV), who constantly berates her for her ambivalence towards the strict Islamic tenets of womanly behavior – are big narrative problems for me. Miss Hussa is almost cartoonishly contrary to anyone’s idea of someone who might realistically deal with female schoolchildren well, even within the socio-religious constraints of the school. And, while Wadjda’s mother is a generally sympathetic figure, suffering arduous commutes to the tenuous work she manages to find here and there, and keeping her head up in the face of potential abandonment by Wadjda’s father, decisions she makes late in the film undermine everything she’d been defending up to that point. Director and writer Haifaa Al-Mansour is refreshingly unsentimental in her conception of Wadjda, but she resorts to Snidely-Whiplash-shorthand for Miss Hussa, and wrong-headedly subverts a lot of what made Wadjda’s mother an interesting and complex woman throughout the early part of story. Al-Mansour wants us to appreciate the hard realities of Wadjda’s prospects within the culture, but she sacrifices a lot of credibility around her compelling main character to make sure there’s a ‘happy’ ending. She wants to paint a realistic picture of everyday family life in Saudi Arabia, featuring real people that Westerners can easily relate to. But she ultimately ends up with a pretty tame Arabian after-school special, and it feels like she wouldn’t have had to stretch all that much further to effectively drop the bottom out of the formula.
Haifaa Al-Mansour is a Saudi female film director in a country that didn’t allow any non-documentary feature film to be made in their country until Spike Lee shot scenes for Malcolm X in Mecca in 1992, and didn’t allow fellow Saudis of any gender to make feature films there until 2006. During exterior shooting, Al-Mansour had to direct her film from inside a van, with walkie-talkies, to avoid any passersby seeing a woman giving ‘orders’ to her male crewmembers. (Her cinematographer is the German Lutz Reitemeier, who is very good, but the visual narrative feels to be genuinely hers.) The Saudis are only now considering allowing movie theaters. Any movie theaters. Think what you will of Prince Al-Waleed, but his investment group is instrumental in slowly changing any of this, in the face of some serious conservative opposition, and it’s admirable. There are a lot of reasons to support this film, and forgive a number of its flaws. But Al-Mansour was also film-educated in Cairo and Sydney, knows her way around world cinema, and, I suspect, would resent not having the film judged on its own merits. She’s had success with this film; talented people are obviously interested in working with her, and, inshallah she’ll be making more down the line. They’ll get better, trust me.