Wadjda – Haifaa al-Mansour uses a cliche to access an entirely foreign world. (film review)

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If there is a problem with Wadjda, it is the Western gaze, and watching it one gets the niggling feeling that has something to do with its remarkable permissions. The film is famous for being, not just the first full feature film shot in Saudi Arabia, but the first shot by a woman in that country, so it’s a tantalising flag to wave in front of liberal audiences ready to passionately embrace those mysterious females behind those controversial veils as they slowly but surely come down. Wadjda expresses her freedom by wearing Chucks and playing video games on an enormous screen TV mounted to the living room wall. She wears a t-shirt that claims “I am a good catch” when one of her pre-pubescent school friends is getting married off.  When she and a giggling classmate are told to be quiet as a woman’s voice is her nakedness – what if the men heard you – she responds by playing Grouplove’s ‘Tonguetied’ on a home radio, whose aerial is makeshift wires and coat hangers strung about her room. These clunky barely concealed metaphors detract ever so slightly from the films real message which is that Saudi women can be trusted with their own freedom, and too often imply it is a Western influence that leads the way in their hoped for emancipation. Knowing precious little about the true lives of Saudi Women behind veils, that may be the case, but the use of the West as a “star in the east” which calls forth Wadjda’s spirit is an unconvincing theory that belittles these women  and is a distraction from the other fine aspects of the film.

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However, Wadjda is a fine film, even if that is primarily because of its frank and generous relationship with its subject matter which is the unknown world of Saudi women who walk the streets in Burqas. Surprisingly, its strengths come from these revelations and its warmth in its dealing with the traditional lifestyles that are inevitably being subverted in favour of a new world, rather than its inspirational shows of Wadjda’s freedom. At heart it is the simple tale of the moment in a child’s life when they first decide they want something and they pull entrepreneurial skills to ‘make it happen’ and the overt drive in Wadjda to immediately barter at school, trade small errand favours for money and eventually enter a Qur’an recitation contest (another one of those clunky metaphors) to make enough to purchase the bike, are the building blocks of a very familiar narrative arc. But it is what happens around Wadjda to the women in her life and how they are changing that drives the heart of the film. Just how fine or close the film is to this subject matter can’t really be known, because it deals with something we know nothing about. I may have a problem with Wadjda’s Chucks as a symbol of consumerist freedom, but part of what made Waad Mohammed an ideal choice fo the feisty role of Wadjda was her appearance at the audition in her own already well-worn Chucks. So who am I to judge? I can’t impose my liberal ideals on a film like this, just as I can’t impose my liberal judgements, and it does make the film difficult to speak about, aside from the titillating “I can’t believe they live like that…” already always overarching response.

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At the same time, Wadjda is a fascinating film as a snapshot of a country at a crucial transitional phase. Wadjda was made in 2012 and in 2015 Saudi women will get the vote. Wadjda’s clumsy and perhaps a tad overt symbolism aside, the daily hypocrisies that the women live with, not only societies but their own, in order to survive become of the films central strengths, and Wadjda’s ability to voice these the sign of true dissent. Wadjda has three primary female role models; her mother, a woman who refuses to try for a son because it will threaten her life despite her husbands desire to search for another wife – her school principal, a woman who admonishes her to toe the line, even as she receives a forbidden boyfriend into her home at night calling him a thief to save face – and Fatima, a woman who takes a job at the local hospital despite the indelicate proximity to males, and reveals her face in the process. All subjects are treated with great warmth and sympathy by Haifaa al-Mansour, including the men who appear to be gaining little from the oppression of women, except the overwhelming burden everyone has of constantly having to think of appearances, but all the women are standing their ground in small ways, and everyone is watching everyone else as a kind indicator of the next move to take. The country is ripe for the gentle but firm revolution of women, and behind the smallest gesture for or against female autonomy is a questioning of the thought process that arrived at this conclusion. This ends up being the pulsing heart of Wadjda, and something Haifaa al-Mansour has flawlessly captured in every one of her performances.

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It is this simmering spirit of revolution that makes Wadjda much better than the sum of its parts, and ultimately a well crafted and successful film. Its most important point, that Saudi women can be trusted with their own freedom, is perfectly woven into the narrative with great subtlety, a surprise given the overt symbolism used on Wadjda herself. The film ends up being a distraction against itself, as if by watching Wadjda the child and her obvious story that links her to all children around the world (and many similar films from many countries) we recognise something stirring in a world about which we know nothing, and it becomes an anchor by which to understand cultural practices seemingly filled with contradictions. In this way Haifaa al-Mansour cleverly uses our Western gaze, no matter its political position, against us as Western viewers and still manages to show us something about a revolution we really do not understand.

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