All she wants is a set of wheels to call her own
Culture is a funny thing. We live within our own like a fish in water, so accustomed to its presence we almost forget it is there. Yet, if we were taken out of our comfortable surroundings and dropped into a foreign world, we might be as inclined as a fish to thrash about while trying to get our bearings.
I felt a little that way while watching Wadjda. This story about a young girl growing up in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia is told in the Arabic language, with English subtitles—for people like me. It requires the viewer to learn a different set of social regulations in order to really appreciate the plot. Undoubtedly I have missed quite a few of these subtleties, but this is the story as I understand it.
At ten-years-old, Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is beginning to feel a bit of a rebellious teenaged spirit. In a country where genders are kept at a distance, she hangs out with a local boy named Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani) while both are on their way to separate schools. Her mandatory headdress tends to fall off while she runs on the public streets. She wears tennis shoes and jeans under her traditional dress. And she listens to music on a pirated radio station. Yet the greatest desire of her heart is to own a bicycle - even though girls shouldn’t ride them because doing so could be “dangerous to her virtue.”
Meanwhile, her mother (Reem Abdullah) is too preoccupied with herself to pay much attention to Wadjda’s indiscretions. At first she appears just vain—taking hours to do her hair and make-up, and dressing in expensive clothes—only to cover up all her efforts with an abaya and Niqāb (black cloak and veil) before leaving the house. But as the story unfolds, we start to suspect this attention to her private appearance might have more to do with the fact her husband (Sultan Al Assaf) is considering marrying a second wife.
With little parental attention, Wadjda is free to pursue her goal of buying a bike. And she has no scruples about her methods for raising the funds. Selling bracelets in football team colors and copies of popular music (both prohibited), collecting money for secretly passing documents and soliciting pity are all methods she employs. Still, the profits are meager. Then she hears about a contest at school with a cash prize. All the winner needs to do is answer some trivia questions and recite the Koran. When she signs up with the religion club, it becomes obvious how little she knows about the faith. All the same, her valiant attempt is noticed by the school’s principal Ms. Hussa (Ahd), who hopes Wadjda’s sudden interest is an outward expression of an inner conversion.
Watching this movie, I couldn’t help but feel writer/director Haifaa Al-Mansour was trying to make a statement about the rights of women. And perhaps that is not too surprising considering she is Saudi Arabia’s first female filmmaker. Certainly my Western sympathies sorrowed at the portrayal of a society that permits children to be married before the age of puberty and rejects girls because male posterity has preeminence. Nor did I realize the fairer sex was not allowed to have a driver’s license. However, I wondered if Al-Mansour’s decision to paint the girl’s school principal as pious, unmerciful and intolerant was a bit of an exaggeration intended to press her point.
Then again, I am the floundering fish here. Without a doubt, Al-Mansour presents an interesting slice-of-life that will be novel for most North American audiences, even if it lags at times. Content concerns are minimal, and include a character that smokes, depictions of disobedience/disrespect for cultural rules, and mentions of female biological functions. Also, vague references to inappropriate sexual behaviors are made, along with a man shouting a sexual remark at a child. Still, the movie does make one thing abundantly clear: Women all over the globe have hopes and dreams, and a will indomitable enough to try to pursue their longings regardless of circumstances. Wadjda captures that spirit in the closing scene when she triumphantly calls out, “Catch me if you can!”