At the end of the film I sat in the darkness of the theatre and cried a little, simply because I was happy. The only reason for this unforeseen outburst of emotion is the image of a young girl in Saudi Arabia who is riding a bike – nothing more. There are no violins playing, no dramatic camera crane shots or sentimental close ups, just the girl riding a bike. Of course, there is a special political and social meaning connected to this image, and naturally it is the conclusion of a complex and yet simple story, but it’s surprising nevertheless that one single moment in cinema can be so powerful. And that’s not the only surprising thing about Wadjda, a beautiful and touching film that opened in Berlin last Thursday.
Wadjda is not only the first ever (!) film to be made in Saudi Arabia, it is also the first film made by a woman in Saudi Arabia. Some journalists have called this “sensational” and I can only agree. I have to admit that I was sceptical at the beginning because there is always a lot of Eurocentric goodwill involved when it comes to projects that deal with aspects of cultural and gender liberation in the Middle East. I was afraid to feel compelled to love this film for what it stands for politically and not for the qualities it has as a film. When the credits rolled, I realized that none of these fears were justified and that director Haifa al-Mansur had produced a both moving and thoughtful fiction about the realities of a country in which girls can’t always do what they want.
Wadjda is an alert and confident young woman who wears jeans and sneakers under her abaya (the Saudi version of a burqa, sort of) and likes to listen to pop music on the radio. Her biggest wish is to have a bike and to ride it, just like the boys do. The main problem with that is not even the rejection she gets from the people around her; her main problem is coming up with the money she needs to buy that bike. When watching Wadjda, I was reminded of those masterful children’s tales like The Boot, A Bag of Rice, or The White Balloon by Iranian filmmakers Mohammed-Ali Talebi and Jafar Panahi whose films have the ability to enchant you with their simple yet universal stories that are radically and heart-warmingly told from the perspective of the little ones. Wadjda is slightly older than small Razieh who wants to buy a goldfish or Samaneh who talks her mother into buying her a pair of red boots. And yet, the idea of desiring something against all odds is the same. Wadjda – and this is one of the many brilliant turns of the screenplay which Haifa al-Mansur wrote herself – is partaking in a Koran competition at her school. The headmistress believes that the rebellious Wadjda is finally choosing the right track of obedience and faith, although Wadjda is actually going through all the preparations with the price money in mind.
Haifa al-Mansur shows us many things in the course of her film, most importantly that growing up as a woman in Saudi Arabia is not easy. Wadjda’s mother, for example, suffers from the fact that Wadjda’s father can legally have other women next to her. Wadjda herself suffers from the fact that her free spirit is constrained by rules and laws she didn’t make. These laws tell women what to wear and where to be, that they should be veiled or in confined spaces, inside homes but not in public. The filmmaker says that women in Saudi Arabia become invisible after they have passed adolescence which is a fact the film mirrors not only in its framing but also in its making. Many scenes in Wadjda are interior shots and depict the spaces of homes and schools not so much as refuges but more as places of social captivity. When shooting the film (after a five-year-long phase of funding and pre-production) Haifa al-Mansur couldn’t walk freely in the streets and directed most of the exterior shots from inside a van, in front of a monitor, walkie-talkie and cell phone always near by.
These circumstances are dramatic, no doubt, and my initial reservations when I read about the film were that it presented the human rights situation in the Middle East as something that “we”, the progressive and developed Westerners (as if!), could look at and have our prejudices confirmed. It is the major achievement of brilliant Haifa al-Mansur that Wadjda does the exact opposite without withholding any of drawbacks of her country. Many feminists, for example, among them very prominently Alice Schwarzer, link the situation of Muslim women to a one-sided and harsh critique of Muslim men. In Wadjda on the other hand, things are shown in a more complex and complicated way and every character, male or female, has his or her own story and history. The headmistress, for example, is not an evil ally, but a woman who was once like Wadjda. The mother is an obedient partner, but also a hard-working woman and a human being whose heart is broken.
Wadjda avoids all good and evil portrayals and intersperses small details into her story which show that al-Mansur always has the big picture in sight. One scene in a shopping mall, for example, shows the global and economic influences on a country like Saudi Arabia in passing as women face the marble floors and polished shop windows that you would find in any other capitalist country. When Wadjda tries to sell her self-made bracelets to a jewellery vendor there, he tells her that the imports from China only cost a fraction of the money that she is asking for. Apart from that, the few men that play a role in the film are never shown as aggressive monsters but as human beings who are simply granted more rights in a country whose government justifies and enforces gender inequality through Sharia law.
By being so balanced and respectful, yet critical and compassionate, Haifa al-Mansur manages quite magically not only to break ground for future filmmakers in Saudi Arabia, but also to tell a very specific story in a specific country under specific circumstances and give it the power, the universal appeal, and the humanness that crystallize in that one simple image of a girl riding a bike. Whether you cry or not this film won’t leave you untouched.
Watch the trailer: Here.
Wadjda (Das Mädchen Wadjda), Saudi Arabia/ Germany, 2012, 98 min.
director: Haifaa Al-Mansour, cinematography: Lutz Reitemeier, actors: Waad Mohammed, Reem Abdullah, Ahd, Dana Abdullilah, Abdullrahman Al Gohani, languages: Arabic, distributor: Koch Media
Arabic with German subtitles: Hackesche Höfe, Rollberg
dubbed in German: Moviemento, Yorck, Capitol Dahlem, Delphi, Filmtheater am Friedrichshain, Kino in der Kulturbrauerei, Cinemaxx Potsdamer Platz