HAIFAA AL MANSOUR is Saudi
Arabia's first female director. Indeed, before
Wadjda (Cert. PG), there has never been a
full-length feature film shot entirely inside that country. We
sense, through the eponymous ten-year-old heroine (Waad Mohammed),
something of the wider community's struggle to accommodate
modernity in a Muslim context.
Likewise the presence of Western guest workers, so long as they
respect local customs. But, with this film, people are being asked
to discern whether the aspirations of the younger generation
(especially its females) are compatible with the kingdom's
religious and cultural norms. And which is which, anyway?
It all centres on the
bicycle that Wadjda wishes to ride. To do so would cause a scandal
in her native Riyadh. As we know from the Olympics, female athletes
from that neck of the woods were required by their own sporting
authorities to dress in a manner considered appropriate, while
women from other Muslim countries did not necessarily have to
comply with such restrictions.
Although the Qur'an requires
modesty in clothing, it is open to interpretation what this means,
and in what circumstances. In microcosm, this is the dilemma facing
Wadjda. Does she take note of her highly conservative teacher Ms
Hussa (played by Ahd, a New York-based actress), who opposes her
pupil's wishes on religious grounds? Wadjda seems instinctively to
know that Islam offers alternative readings.
Females in Islam are
considered equal but different from males, which leaves her some
room for manoeuvre. She has seen how constrained the life of her
mother (Reem Abdullah) is. Failure to bear a son threatens to lead
the now absent husband to seek another wife. Her mother also fears
outside pressures, were she to accede to her daughter's
When the driver who is to
take her to work doesn't turn up, she feels powerless to get there
under her own steam. One cannot see Wadjda, when an adult, allowing
herself to be controlled in this way.
At the risk of being seen as
a tomboy, she sets about raising money to buy the bike by entering
a Qur'an-reciting school competition. The cash prize would fund the
purchase. At times, the film wants it both ways. It sets up a
scenario that exposes the pettiness of certain culturally derived
observances. The film then fails to offer a critique of aspects of
a religion that, in having much to commend it, ought, therefore, to
be robust enough to enter into dialogue with challenges.
"Subversive" might be a
better way of describing Wadjda. The girl continually breaks the
mould by an "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" attitude, and thus
offers hope that change is possible without the destruction of
faith. I can see why the ecumenical Interfilm Jury at last year's
Venice Film Festival gave its Award for Promoting Interreligious
Dialogue to this film.
On release from today.