Haifaa al-Mansour’s film Wadjda focuses its narrative on the titular spunky 11-year old girl living in present-day Saudi Arabia. With a patriarchal and religious country as her setting, young Wadjda faces the limitations and social constructs of her country through her journey to obtain a bicycle (a toy that’s not for girls).
While Wadjda certainly does not veil itself from showing harsh gender politics of Saudi Arabia, it uses it only as a backdrop. There’s a healthy balance in Wadjda that shows both the country’s good and bad aspects, and absolutely does not reinforce unfunded Western stereotypes. Instead, it gives them context and challenges them.
The basis of my argument comes from al-Mansour’s own description of the film. As someone who knows little about Saudi Arabia, it is hard for me to judge her depiction based on the film alone. Although, in this interview with NPR, al-Mansour talks about how important it was to display Saudi Arabia realistically.
“I think it is very important to open up Saudi and have new imagery coming from the kingdom. Nobody knows [what] it is like to be in Saudi, and for me it is important to create that ownership — even for people in Saudi, when they see the neighborhoods and all that.”
Here, she talks about taking ownership of Saudi Arabian imagery. She wanted the locals who saw the movie to recognize it as their home. From the same interview:
“One day we did some cultural screenings in Saudi, and we invited a lot of Saudis and young kids. And one of them came to me, and he was really emotional and told me, ‘I understand, I feel how Americans feel now when they see an American movie.’”
“A lot of people who make films from the Middle East, [they are] almost like a horror movie when you go. And it makes me very uncomfortable watching a film like that, and I feel helpless. I feel like a victim.”
Of course, portraying something realistically does not always mean showing it in a perfect light. Like any other nation, Saudi Arabia has its positive and negative aspects. The negative (especially those regarding the treatment of women) are focused on in the film. But at the same time, a lot of those stereotypes are also broken.
From the NPR interview:
Director Haifaa Al Mansour tells NPR’s Rachel Martin that she wanted to make a film ‘that mirrors reality as much as possible.’
“I couldn’t make a film where women are all innocent and they’re all striving to be free and all that; it’s not real. I think a lot of women are the gatekeepers, a lot of women reinforce the values … For me, it was not making women all the victims, and men are the oppressors.“
One of Wadjda’s greatest strengths is something that many Western films struggle with: the humanizing of and focus on female characters. While many of Wadjda’s struggles come from traditional rules regarding being female, the heart of the film itself is about a girl’s relationship with her mother.
While there are female characters in the film who (as al-Mansour says) are the “gatekeepers” and reinforce these values, they’re still multidimensional characters with their own arcs and clearly stated motives. All screenplays need an antagonist, and by making Wadjda’s main opposition her headmistress, Ms. Hussa, al-Mansour provides an interesting commentary on Saudi Arabia’s gender politics.
It’d be easy to make Wadjda’s main oppositional force a man (perhaps, the toy store owner who will not sell her the bike, or her father who will not allow her to ride). By making it a woman who enforces these rules, al-Mansour prevents Wadjda from being a type of allegory, and instead paints it as a complex society where not all women consider themselves victims, and not all men enforce these conservative rules.
It’s also important to keep in mind that Wadjda is told from the perspective of its protagonist; a preadolescent girl (I would actually make the argument that the bike is symbolic of her adolescence, but that would be a slight digression from my point). While al-Mansour does not shy away from some stereotypical topics, she presents them in a very diluted manner as the eyes of a child would.
For example, when Wadjda learns about the neighbor’s son who died as a suicide bomber, she doesn’t get it. Why would someone hurt themselves like that? When Abdullah explains that if you kill yourself for Allah, seventy brides await you in Heaven, Wadjda’s childlike mindset results in her reasoning, “Boom! Seventy bicycles.”
Her responses to being told to hide her face and voice from men, and how she speaks to Iqbul, her mother’s driver, also hold a childlike innocence to them. Assuming al-Mansour knew the film would be seen by Westerners, Wadjda’s naïveté about why things are the way they are acts almost as an avatar for a Western audience.
[Above: Wadjda cares more about finishing her hopscotch game than being seen by men]
When her mother laments about wanting to cut her hair short, Wadjda asks what a Westerner might, “Well why don’t you?” Her mother has to explain to both Wadjda, and us, that her husband’s happiness is what’s valued. Wadjda’s childish egotism mirrors an individualistic society, rather than the collectivist one she lives in.
The only part of Wadjda that I think can be interpreted as giving into stereotype is how Wadjda expresses her individualism and desire for freedom. In one of the opening shots of the film, we immediately learn what kind of person she is: She’s a pair of dirty Chuck Taylors amidst a group of clean black shoes and white socks.
We then see her at home, listening to American music. Her sassy shirts are written in English. Even the bike helmet Abdullah gives her has a picture of Hannah Montana on it.
While this isn’t to say these images aren’t realistic, it does frame American culture as a sort of obtainable goal that Wadjda strives for. However, the United States is not mentioned (the closest thing is when Abdullah says the helmet is like the ones worn “on television”), and this can be construed as displaying America’s dominant force in world media. Not to mention, showing these images brings a connectivity to an Western viewer with Wadjda. (Ex. They listen to the same music I do, they play the same video games I do. Maybe Saudi’s aren’t so different after all!)
The Playstation game being played in the scene depicted above is a first-person shooter. This allows al-Monsour to juxtapose how outsiders might imagine Saudi Arabia (what’s on the television screen), versus how they actually are (seen here).
As well, al-Mansour shows her characters preforming everyday ‘slice of life’ activities not often associated with our image of Saudi women (i.e. shopping for dresses, straightening their hair, gossiping on the phone, etc.)
In total, I don’t think al-Mansour seeks to make an extensive statement on Saudi Arabian culture. Rather, she tries to paint it realistically in order to counter images presumed by Westerners. As said excellently by al-Mansour in the interview below (10:25):
“The priority is not to compete and get there first; the importance is to develop something transparent from which good things result.”
Al-Mansour, Haifaa. “Wadjda – Making of – Digital Camera Equipment Supplied by ARRI Rental.” Interview. Vimeo. N.p., 11 Sept. 2013. Web.
“‘Wadjda’ Director: ‘It Is Time To Open Up’.” Movie Interviews. National Public Radio. 22 Sept. 2013. Radio.
Wadjda. Dir. Haifaa Al-Mansour. Perf. Waad Mohammed and Reem Abdullah. Koch Media, 2012.