Wadjda's Spirit

(Saudi Arabia/Germany, 97 min.)
Written and directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour
Starring: Waad Mohammed, Reem Abdullah, Abdullrahman Al Gohani, Ahd, Sultan Al Assad
Waad Mohammed as Wadjda and Reem Abdullah as Mother.
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Wadjda might be one of the most important films screening in a theatre near you. Wadjda is directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour in her feature debut and, more significantly, it is the first feature film from Saudi Arabia. This fact is momentous, but it feels doubly relevant if one considers the story and subject matter of Wadjda itself. The film tells of a young girl named Wadjda growing up in the city Riyadh and learning the dos and don’ts of being a young girl in a male-controlled Muslim culture. Wadjda looks at religion, culture, and tradition through the eyes of an innocent and the film provides a perspective to which viewers have rarely been granted access before. The film seems to give the patriarchal society a fair portrayal, but its even-handed approach subtly challenges the social and political conservatism that creates gaps in equality and opportunity between genders. Wadjda is a necessary and significant film.

Wadjda feels especially relevant given that Saudi Arabia submitted it as its contender for Best Foreign Language Film in this year's race for the Academy Awards. Oscar's rule of “one nation, one film” inevitably raises questions of nationalism as cultural committees ponder which film might best represent them. Saudi Arabia’s submission of Wadjda, admittedly a contender from a field of one, seems like an acknowledgment of the themes and issues with which the film engages. The film’s presence in the Oscar race seems as refreshingly optimistic as the film itself: it tells a story that deserves an audience and people seem to be responding to it.

Wadjda is a winner regardless of the endorsement it receives from the voters at the Academy. Haifaa Al-Mansour’s assured debut is a great, moving, and palpably important film. Equally accomplished is the debut performance of its young female lead actor, Waad Mohammed, in the title role. Wadjda, as played by Mohammed, is a spunky and spirited girl. She is a fine symbol to carry this landmark film.

Wadjda conveys how its heroine feels like an outcast in the quotidian activities of her days at school. Wadjda walks to and from home and school with her bicycle-bound friend, Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), although they often travel a slight distance apart and tease that they are brother and sister should anyone find them together. As Wadjda and Abdullah part ways, she to the girls’ school and he to the boys’, they step towards a life determined for them by gendered curricula and culture. Two kids so alike shouldn’t have such disparate opportunities.

Al-Mansour finds the most seemingly innocent and childlike example that can convey the life Wadjda faces under strict application of the teachings of the Koran. Wadjda admires the quick, amusing bicycle that Abdullah rides to school She wants one of her own as she spies a riderless bike—such a symbol of freedom—hurtling through the streets of Riyadh atop a truck. Wadjda makes it her mission that she will own this bike. It’s not a question of breaking barriers, for Wadjda doesn’t know that bicycles aren’t considered proper for girls. Wadjda just wants to have fun.

After receiving the news from her mother (a terrific Reem Abdullah) that money will not be spent on a toy that isn’t for girls, Wadjda embarks on an ironic quest to pay for the bike. She enlists in the school’s Koran competition and devotes herself to the teachings of the scripture so that she may win a cash prize. Wadjda’s dream of riding her own bike makes her a devoted pupil of the Koran, much to the surprise of her nitpicky headmistress (Ahd) whose teaching shape Wadjda into a traditional woman the hard way.

Wadjda’s gradual, if innocently self-serving, test of her faith allows her to taste and explore the teachings that define her. Especially endearing are the scenes of Wadjda in which the young heroine receives lessons in the Koran from her mother. There is more than memory required to honour the teachings, Wadjda’s mother advises, for one must beat the right cadence and inflection into the words to reveal the heart of the message. Mohammed and Abdullah have an excellent onscreen rapport as the mother and daughter, and their struggle with fate conveys the personal and social tolls of growing up in such a patriarchal society.

Wadjda’s father (Sultan Al Assad) is largely absent from most of the film. He lives not with his wife and daughter, but with his mother, who seeks a second bride for her son because the first cannot bear him any sons. Al-Mansour smartly creates the father so that he is not a bad man: he is distant, but not unkind. He simply complies with the mores that value sons as proof of a man’s worth. There’s no greater prize for a mother, though, than a child like Wadjda, so the film’s winning multigenerational story of Wadjda’s relationship with her mother plays like a warm dedication to the spirit of the women in The Kingdom.

Wadjda’s sunny, crowd-pleasing tone makes one want to stand up and cheer for the determined little girl. The applause is not so much for Wadjda, but for the hope for the future that she represents. Wadjda devotion to the challenge, which seems increasingly genuine as her studies advance, shows that a girl can grasp the teachings of the Koran in a contemporary context. Faith and progress need not be binary forces. Wadjda’s insightful innocence is remarkable: this first feature conveys a legacy of stories told in an extraordinary voice.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Wadjda screens in Ottawa at The ByTowne Oct. 18 – 22.