When a filmmaker decides to make a film portraying life in their country, more often than not, they sugarcoat things and make sure that everything seems like a dream. In some places, however, that’s easier said than done. This time around, one filmmaker gave you the brutal view of her culture and the result is absolutely shocking and something that deserves to be seen. The way it’s presented is genius and it just can’t be missed.
In her home of Saudi Arabia, Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is unlike any of the young girls in her culture. Her father is always away with another woman, her mother works a job hours away, and school and female oppression don’t interest her. One day on her way home from school, Wadjda sees a beautiful bike that could rival the likes of the boys at her school. She may not have any money now, but she makes the owner of the store where the bike is, promise her that he won’t sell the bike to anyone else. The only question now, is how she is going to raise this money and also have her mother not find out about the whole situation
Other than raising money, Wadjda’s other problems await at school, where she’s not allowed to wear certain shoes, read certain books, or even play outside while men are outdoors. The headmaster of her school, Ms. Hussa (Ahd), is always cracking down on Wadjda, but offers her a chance to win prize money by entering in a competition that requires the memorization of part of the Koran. Thus begins Wadjda’s attempt to memorize by herself, while the rest of her family struggled to stay together and provide a happy household for her. All she has going for her is the determination to buy that bike and live like a normal kid should.
Wadjda offers an incredible look at Saudi Arabian culture through the perfect lens. As an outsider looking in, it’s disgusting the way that women are treated. However, not being a woman searching for rights anywhere, I had no idea what it was really like. This film captures the imagination and wonderment of being a child and applies that to this oppressive culture. Watching Wadjda try to grow up like a “normal” girl is wonderful and it’s even better to see her question why she can’t. This film brings up a lot of issues with the culture, but handles them respectfully and through the eyes of a young child.
Waad Mohammed is absolutely wonderful in her role of the title character, Wadjda. As she paints her toe-nails, jams out to pop music, and seeks out for a bike to ride, we see the average girl within her. It’s only when she’s repressed and told she can’t do most things because she’s a woman, that she becomes inquisitive and tries to break the form. Mohammed balances wonderment and sassiness incredibly well. She wants to go out and play soccer and ride bikes and the other girls call her a tomboy. In response, she gives them a whole lot of sass and completely stuns them. She’s a smart girl who wants to be free, but has to try to adapt to the world she lives in. She’s so sweet and funny, that it’s impossible not to rally behind her. She’s one of the best female characters that has graced the screen in a while.
Director Haifaa Al-Monsour has made history, as she’s the first female director from Saudi Arabia. Not only that, but this film was the first film submitted by Saudi Arabia for the Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film. As impressive as these two feats are, the story of Al-Monsour’s direction stands above. Any scene that was filmed outside, required her to be inside and directing someone what to film. She had to edit many scenes because they depicted men poorly and she was always having to watch what she was doing. A lot of herself is in Wadjda, as she’s going against the status quo and doesn’t understand what the big deal is about a girl doing something that a guy can. Her film depicts the life of Saudi Arabian women and what the standard is for them and she directs and writes it expertly. Through sassy and direct dialog, you get the sense of what life there is really like for women and it’s simply astounding that she got this movie made.
This film does a great job of tiptoeing on what’s controversial and what’s not. In many instances, you get an innocent Wadjda asking why she can’t be outside playing when a man is also outside. Other times, female school officials tell Wadjda flat-out that she can’t behave like a little girl and must respect the men of her culture by wearing a burqa. You get the sense that many of these women feel oppressed by the men, but there’s nothing they can do about it. There’s also the other perspective of the women who’ve grown custom to the culture and don’t mind having to live like they do.
For me, I felt like the film’s only downfall was its antagonists and their deliberately evil agenda. Every obstacle that’s thrown at Wadjda is just too much to bear for that girl and it seems unrealistic at times. It’s that whole concept of “everything that could go wrong, does go wrong” and then some. Obviously it makes for a better underdog/resilience story, but it gets old pretty quickly. It all just felt very Hollywood in a film that’s mostly anything but that. Aside from these issues, Wadjda knocks it out of the park.
My appreciation for foreign films is ever-growing and Wadjda is just another reason for that. When a film can break racial, ethical, sexual, or gender barriers and tell an outstanding story, that’s something to rejoice about. This film was the perfect look into a culture through the greatest vessel possible. This is a film that should make waves in the film industry and other filmmakers should aspire to break barriers and tell any story, no matter the circumstances. It’s this kind of fearless film making that restores my faith in the industry and the smaller films that are often swept under the rug by those big-budget blockbusters. Foreign films are just as/if not more important and they’re here to stay!