Thursday, October 10, 2013

Wadjda: Saudi Arabia Drops Its Veil

Under ordinary circumstances Wadjda would be a well-made foreign film about a young girl who wants a bicycle -- a charming coming-of-age story we’ve seen many times before. But Wadjda was not made under ordinary circumstances. It was written and directed by Haifaa al Mansour who was born and raised in Saudi Arabia. It is the first feature film ever made in Saudi Arabia, and it is about growing up a Saudi girl, and life among Saudi women.

Wadjda is one of those movies that mark a turning point in the social order and in the history of film-making. In this case, the outside world gets a glimpse into one of the most exclusive, secluded, least known societies – from a member of that secluded society.

The film thrusts us into a sudden intimacy that humanizes women who, until now, the media has portrayed as one-dimensional objects of pity and injustice -- victims completely oppressed by the male population. Wadjda broadens this view and shows us the individualism, resilience, sorrows, joys and complexities inside the world of Saudi women, through the passion of one very determined little girl.

Wadjda (played by Waad Mohammed) lives a middle-class life in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. She is the only child of her father’s only wife, but she has grown up smart, spunky and very much loved by both her parents. The outside world is reaching out to her in the form of CDs, radio and fashion. The niqab, the full-length black dress of Saudi women that leaves only the eyes uncovered, still must be worn outside the home. But inside their homes they wear anything they want. If women are supposed to be demure, reserved and submissive this hasn’t been impressed on Wadjda because she says and does whatever she wants.

Her best friend is a boy, Abdullah (Abdullrahman al Gohani), who adores and respects her as much as he teases her. In her first 10 years of life it has never occurred to Wadjda that she is secondary to anyone. But as she advances on puberty, she is finding out. She can beat Abdullah at anything, but when she wants to outrace him bicycling she learns how difficult her country’s customs and beliefs make it for her to own her own bike. But this is a girl who pushes envelopes and will use her own two-wheel bike to do it.

Her greatest obstacle is in the form of her all-female school’s headmistress, Ms. Hussa (Ahd). Hussa’s job is to educate girls in reading, writing, arithmetic and religious studies. Her main job to prepare them for their proper and legal roles in Saudi society, in which women are circumscribed by how much of them strange men can be allowed to see.

Mansour herself had to direct the movie from inside a van and largely through cell phones because men and women are not allowed to mix in the workplace.

Mansour doesn’t blame the men. She sees them as victims of the same customs and restrictions. They too have been brought up to believe they are the protectors of the women in their family and totally responsible for their safety from other male’s prying eyes. It’s been less than 100 years since Saudi Arabia emerged from a society that had not changed in the last 1,000 years. The land is very harsh. It’s almost all sand with no fresh water within its borders. Life was hard and tribal warfare could have tragic results for weak men and unprotected women. Wahhabism, the strict form of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia, doesn’t allow for much freedom of thought or action.

In spite of this, Mansour shows us there is room for normal, human decency and men who seek it out. Wadjda’s father takes a second wife and pushes Wadjda and her mother to the sidelines of his life. He loves them deeply but his family’s expectations pressure him. He can’t leave his family line without male heirs.

Men aren’t allowed to look at or be alone with a woman who is not family, but work around the restrictions somehow. Men may control society but women get their way also through the natural respect that comes when people want genuine communication.

Performances are great all round, especially from first time actress Waad Mohammed. Haifaa al Mansour may have learned filmmaking furtively but she has a steady, professional control that gives the film the nuance and panache that makes it outstanding.

Wadjda has official support from the Saudi Arabian government who submitted it for Oscar consideration in the Best Foreign Language Film Category. One of its sponsors is Prince Al-Waleed bin Talel of the Saudi royal family, a champion for women’s freedom. The actors, men and women, are from Saudi Arabia’s thriving TV industry that satirizes the country’s restrictions and is very popular. That tells us, cracks are showing. Slowly, things are changing. With so much media technology in the country opening the window to how the rest of the world lives things may start changing faster.

Wadjda is a sweet look into a foreign world with the startling revelation that Saudi Arabians are as human as the rest of us.

The movie is not yet available on DVD, but here are good books to read on Saudi Arabia.


Haifaa al Mansour interview on PBS, 
Princess Ameerah al-Taweel and PrinceAl-Waleed bin Talel working to advance cause of Saudi, interviewed by Charlie Rose 
Wadjda charms the Venice Film Festival,


  1. I love your article about the movie. It gave a layered sense of just how tense it is for Wadjda's character to grow up as a girl in Saudi Arabia. A truth which mirrors the experience of the female director of the film -- even while shooting this film: having to shoot from a van, separate from the male co-workers on the set. That's odd. So, how did they film the scenes with the male and female actors together, if not to break that rule? Did I read that correctly? If so, what a contradiction to the rule. Fascinating.

  2. Thanks for your great compliments Anonymous. I hope my review inspires you to see the film. You bring up a good point however. I've read that Haifaa al Mansour had to work from inside a van because she could not mingle with her male crew, but I have no idea how that extends to shooting scenes with men and women. Also, the male crew would have been working with the actresses. I'll see if I can find out more about the delicacies of these interactions.