Wadjda (2012), directed by Haifaa Al Mansour and starring Waad Mohammed as its 11-year-old adorable rebellious protagonist, is a modern fairy tale set in an exotic country of Saudi Arabia, a success story of a young girl who fights the odds one day to become a happy owner of a new green bicycle. Audiences love heroes and heroines, and if at the dawn of civilization they had to be semi-gods possessing superhuman strength, with the spread of Christianity values changed and today the strength of spirit is required to be viewed as a real hero. The popularity of Spiderman and Ironman testifies to the fact that you no longer need to have divine origin to become a hero. What you need is a strength of character and a firm faith. And while the physical strength stereotype is still widely exploited in the mass culture, the icons of our age are Martin Luther King, Oprah Winfrey, Stephen Hawking and others, people who prove that anything is possible if you have enough talent, patience, and motivation. Wadjda is one of the modern heroines who succeeded with the help of her unyielding optimism, resourcefulness, and perseverance. The movie shares with its audience two essential secrets of Wadjda success: perseverance and tolerance; close, uncompromising, and yet unimposing exploration of these two themes helps the film spread a universal message: you can be an agent of change without violence and hatred.
Wadjda is certainly a movie to be seen, if only because it is a unique cultural breakthrough and a compelling story that will keep you watching until the very end. Wadjda is a movie of a lot of firsts. It is the first full-length film, shot by a female director from Saudi Arabia. Because of the limitations and customs in Saudi Arabia, Haifaa Al Mansour had to direct the filming process from a trailer parked nearby, and give orders by the radio, but nevertheless she managed to finish her work. It is also the first full-length film, shot entirely in Saudi Arabia. Finally, it is the first film in the history of Saudi Arabia that has been nominated for Oscar in the category "Best Foreign Language Film." These firsts are enough to sparkle the curiosity of even the most sophisticated cinema-lover. But for many people the key appeal of this film is the story it is telling. The story of Wadjda is touching and enlightening. Wadjda a resourceful, spunky, and bright ten-year-old girl who lives with her mother in the suburbs of the Saudi capital. The father of the family is rarely at home: dissatisfied that his wife cannot give him a male heir, he is thinking about taking a second wife. Wajda loves to have fun, which regularly causes criticism from strict teachers who monitor the observance of all customs and prohibitions. Having seen a neighbor boy Abdullah's bicycle, Wajda decides to buy one too - at any price, despite the fact that the Saudi society does not approve of girls riding bicycles in public. Wadjda embarks on her own fundraising campaign, which at first is not too successful. Soon a competition for the knowledge of the Koran is announced at school, for the victory in which a large cash prize is promised. Wadjda wins the competition, but when it becomes known that she is planning to buy a bike with the money she has won, the money is given to charity on her behalf. Returning home, upset, Wadjda finds that her father took a second wife, and her mother, who had cut her hair short, despite her husband's objections, bought her a green bicycle. Wadjda wins the race with Abdullah. Getting to know Wadjda's story is also a first for many viewers as it offers them an insight into a completely different way of life and this is what makes it so fascinating for the Western audiences.
The film opens up a veil over the Muslim world, showing both its beautiful and disturbing sides. The film proves that just like any other nook on this Earth, the suburbs where the events are unfolding are filled with love and friendship. The uncomfortable truths are not held back by Al Mansour. But they are told without judgment and bias. The director tries to show the daily life in Saudi Arabia as it is without having to embellish or demonize it. Though the limitations of the Muslim culture seem to stand out more to the modern audience, Al Mansour is attempting to show that there are possibilities too. Her director's view is conveyed through the way the film is shot. The photographer and internet log writer Donatello Romanazzi comments on the shooting technique: "From the beginning of the film, Reitemeier uses a very natural look, rooted in his background as documentary cinematographer: the camera is like a voyeur who leads us in the street of Riyadh, into places where no man is allowed to enter, into the ordinary life of the characters" (qtd. in Garrett). This unpretentious, natural way of presenting the scenes allows the spectator to approach the events with less bias and predicament. The director does not impose her judgement, showing, rather than telling. Consequently, the atmosphere of the film can hardly be called sad, oppressive or gloomy. On the contrary, the world for the first time gets the opportunity to see what Saudi Arabians are in everyday life: reserved and prudish in public, at home they - just like us - laugh, dress up, flirt, quarrel and make friends. Wadjda's warm-heartedness in her relationship with her mother and her best friend Abdullah serve as a shield for her against all adversity of the world around. Her fund-raising adventures and her mockingly skeptical attitude to the conventions and rules that fill the life of a girl in Saudi Arabia will make the viewer smile more than once. And, perhaps, these smiles will be the first step towards changing the position of women in Saudi Arabia - in a peaceful, non-violent way.
All in all, Wadjda is not only an eye-opening journey into the Muslim world, but also a warning to anyone who is only too ready to judge. It seem, another one of the film's slogans could be the famous line from Matthew 7:1 "Judge not, that you be not judged". Daniel Garrett writes in his detailed review,
By filming inside the school, Al Mansour throws open a curtain on a previously closed world not that different, in the end, from certain religious schools in the West that some viewers may have attended. There is the same obsession with sex on the part of the teachers, who are no angels themselves, and the same attempt to regiment happy young children into narrow social roles" (Garrett).
When Wadjda reminds the school principal that the woman's reputation is not spotless too, this does not show her to be too kind and forgiving, but it also reminds us that we have to finally stop throwing stones at each other. To paraphrase Romans 14:1-4, who are we to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is vital to remember we are all people and not too different from each other, no matter where we live and to whom we pray. As Al Mansour tells a story of her casting Waad to play Wadjda, she says, "...when Waad came in wearing jeans and Chuck Taylor sneakers, hair curled, listening to Justin Bieber, she looked exactly like a teenager in London. I realised there is a universal youth culture" (qtd. in Hoggard). I would go further and say that the film makes its audience realize there is a universal bond that connects all human beings and this is what we have to remember.
Of course, it is only natural that the Western audiences would find it hard not to judge the conservative society in which Wadjda lives, and here is where the hidden message of the film can shine in its most spectacular glory. Wadjda's story teaches the viewer a very important lesson: ordeal is needed to grow spiritually and hardships are necessary to find your own voice. The world in which Wadjda lives is a part of her character, of who she is. It has taught her to be strong and persevering. "If you set your mind to something no one can stop you," says Wadjda's mother to her unstoppable daughter (Al Mansour). Wadjda's means of achieving success - tenacity, patience, and perseverance - are, indeed, worthy of respect. In an interview for The Guardian, Al-Mansour said, "It's very important to celebrate resistance, pursuing one's dreams. Sometimes, it's easy to make a character in a place such as Saudi a victim; people exploit them, they give up hope" (qtd. in Hoggard). Not giving up is what is needed to change this world. At the Tribeca Film Festival, Al-Mansour told the audience that she "tried to make a film about hope, embracing change and moving ahead" (qtd. in Loewentheil). The director's attempt has proven to be a success. As Hannah Loewentheil writes in her review, "Rather than waiting passively for doors to open before them, both Al-Mansour and Wadjda forged their own paths, and pushed the boundaries society set for them" (Loewentheil). But the important thing is that they did it with the help of such peaceful tools as perseverance, patience, resourcefulness, talent and openness to a dialogue rather than anger, hate, judgement and criticism.
Wadjda is not only a touching and poignant fairy tale, but also a profound philosophical meditation upon the phenomena of perseverance, patience, tolerance and forgiveness and a movie with a mission. In Shakespeare's words, the time today is out of joint, Wadjda and her generation are destined to set it right. The depth and scale of the psychological investigation make this movie a story of huge interest not only to the young audiences, but also adults all around the world who will appreciate its unique perspective and readiness to start a dialogue. After all, tolerant and peaceful communication is what the modern world needs most.
Al-Mansour , Haifaa, director. Wadjda. Koch Media, 2012.
Garrett, Daniel. "Faith and Disbelief, Commerce and Culture: Wadjda and A Hologram for the King, Two Films with Stories Inspired by Saudi Arabia." Offscreen. Volume 22, Issue 1., Canada Council for the Arts, Jan. 2018, offscreen.com/view/wadjda-and-a-hologram-for-the-king.
Hoggard, L. (2013, July 13). Haifaa al-Mansour: 'It's very important to celebrate resistance'. Retrieved November 21, 2018, from https://www.theguardian.com/theobserver/2013/jul/ 14/haifaa-mansour-wadjda-saudi-arabia
Holy Bible. English Standard Version. Crossway Books, 2001.
Loewentheil, Hannah. "'Wadjda' Movie Review: A Message Of Hope For Saudi Arabian Women." Mic, Mic Network Inc., 13 Sept. 2013, mic.com/articles/63595/wadjda-movie-review-a-message-of-hope-for-saudi-arabian-women#.IjN1Jv3vA.
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