As I mentioned when I wrote about the must-see Loving Vincent, this week I asked for the Fall Film Challenge to suggest some “groundbreaking” films and received Wadjda, which depending on whom you talk to is the first or second Saudi movie to be made. In Saudi Arabia there are no movie theaters since films are prohibited (like a lot of other things).
Directed by a woman, Haifaa Al Mansour, who had to direct from a van via walkie talkie because passers by would make trouble for a woman giving orders to a man, Wadjda showed me what life is like for women and girls in the Kingdom.
Wadjda is an 11 year old girl who dreams of riding a bike, although it’s taboo because there’s a fear that a bike accident would affect a female’s virginity. That’s what they believe. Really. Nonetheless Wadjda is determined.
She’s a spunky girl, who though not defiant, just spirited gets in trouble at school a lot. The school is run by a principal who gets after any girl who isn’t covered enough, reads magazines or wears nail polish. Even being in the vicinity of such behaviors can get you scrutinized.
Wadjda’s closest friend is a cute boy, who’s about a head shorter than her. They strike a deal that if she lets him hang election materials for his uncle from her rooftop, she can ride his bike up there out of sight.
Wadjda gave me a look inside a Saudi family. Wadjda is an only child and while loved, something of a disappointment since she’s female. While her mother loves her father, who’s rarely home, she fears that the father will get a second wife to get a male heir.
There were no feminists other than possibly Wadjda in the film. Even the mother who wears jeans at home and works, is constantly scolding Wadjda for small “unload-like” infractions. Women were often looking at each other to judge any impropriety. The minute rules that must be followed to be considered a pure woman are overwhelming.
I was surprised that this oil rich country had such a shoddy middle class neighborhood. There were no sidewalks, new cars, or modern classrooms. Living conditions were on par with Indonesia. (Saudi Arabia’s GDP per capita is $20,890 vs. $3,817 for Indonesia). I wonder why the public roads and schools were awful in the capital city.
I rooted for Wadjda in her quest for a bike and would love to see this girl in other films. The plot took some unexpected turns for me. I’d say this is a groundbreaking film that anyone interested in other cultures should watch.
Here’s a reaction by a Saudi blogger to the film.