Director: Haifaa Al-Mansour
Cast: Waad Mohammed, Reem Abdullah, Abdullrahman Al Gohani
Plot: An enterprising Saudi girl signs on for her school's Koran recitation competition as a way to raise the remaining funds she needs in order to buy the green bicycle that has captured her interest.
Awards: Won 3 awards (Venice). Nom. for 1 BAFTA - Best Foreign Language Feature.
Rating: PG for thematic elements, brief mild language and smoking.
IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: NO)
I think this film is best appreciated in context. Stripped of its context, it looks and feels like any other Middle Eastern film, particularly those from Iran. It is not an outstanding film on its own, and watching it can feel normal and even plain. Those who regularly watch films from the region will sort-of-agree that Wadjda is overrated.
But as I said earlier, context can help to put things in perspective. The context here is provided by two contributing and related factors – this is the first feature shot by a woman entirely in Saudi Arabia. It is one of the breakthrough works of world cinema, and it wouldn't be exaggerating to call it a minor miracle.
The director is Haifaa Al-Mansour. She delivers a simple and subtle drama, but one told with remarkable clarity. The story centers on a semi-rebellious schoolgirl who motivates herself to enter her school's Koran recitation competition so that if she wins first prize she gets enough cash to buy a green bicycle she has been eyeing on.
Wadjda is told through the child's eye – no dilution, no coloration, merely a curious observation. In some way we as viewers function as children, because very rarely we know how Saudi Arabia is like. We only think we know. For better or worse, it is no different than a country like Iran – closed, conservative and authoritarian.
Why I keep referring to Iran is because their cinema has richly informed us of its social, cultural and political circumstances for around half a century. If it is any indicator of the future potential of Saudi Arabian cinema, Wadjda as nondescript as it is embodies a spirit no less different.
Non-males dominate the picture. We see the girl and her mother at home, we see schoolgirls and female teachers in schools. They cover up in public spaces to avoid attracting men's attention. But most of the time we see these women as they are – un-veiled, thus revealing not their gender, but their liberation from it.
The performances are decent, with the girl's friendship with a boy particularly well thought out. The storytelling clarity is commendable; the film is easy to follow and despite a somewhat slow pacing, there are very few instances of dullness creeping in.
It may be plain, but it cannot be accused of being tepid. Once again, Wadjda doesn't immediately stand out like contemporary films of the Middle East such as Turtles Can Fly (2004) or A Separation (2010), but armed with its context, it quietly tells us something important. In a place where movie theaters are banned, this voice reverberates far beyond the silver screen.
Verdict: This minor miracle shot entirely in Saudi Arabia by a female director is at its core a simple and subtle drama told with remarkable clarity.
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