And so we come to the second installment of this month of No-English Moviember and I can already tell that we’ve had enough of this Eurocentric view of non-English films. So I have ventured far to shirk off the usual familiarity that European films give to me the first film shot entirely in in Saudi Arabia, as well as the first by a female director, the Saudi Arabian-German film Wadjda.
But before I get into explaining why I have to say this film is a German and Saudi Arabian effort, here comes the obligatory overview! The eponymous character of this film, Wadjda dreams of being able to own a new bicycle (in the national colours of course) so she can race her friend Abdullah. However for a girl to do such a thing is frowned upon, with her mother even telling her that riding a bicycle would mean she wouldn’t be able to have children.
Undeterred, Wadjda tries to earn money from selling hair-braiding bracelets, mix-tapes and to do other activities in order to get the bike she longs for. After several admonishments by her strict headmistress, Wadjda decides to enter a Qur’an recital in order to win 1000 Riyals, enough to get her that bicycle. However while Wadjda seeks to gain that green bike like Gatsby seeks the green light, problems rear up from both home and school.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I think a little background should be painted of the making of this film. Wadjda is a film five years in the making, with the majority of that time coming from finding financial backing as well as obtaining permission to film, with the director Haifaa al-Mansour insisting the film be shot in Saudi Arabia in order to achieve authenticity.
Al-Mansour eventually financial and production backing from the Rotana Group (primarily own by the Saudi Arabian Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal) whom she said of in a interview with The Financial Times:
“I think his [the prince’s] vision is to push for women and his vision is to push for film in Saudi,” Mansour says. “That is why Rotana came aboard.”
Yet Al-Mansour was also insistent on procuring foreign co-producers, eventually getting the help of German production companies Razor Films, Norddeutscher Rundfunk and Bayerischer Rundfunk. Al-Mansour reasoned this in the same interview by saying that:
“I really wanted to find a foreign co-producer because in Saudi, as there are no movie theatres, there is no film industry to speak of and, therefore, very little money for investment[.]”
But even after the money and backing was found, filming Wadjda was made difficult for Al-Mansour, having to remain in a van, only being able to come out when permission was granted. While in the van, she had to communicate with her crew via walkie-talkie and watch the actors from a monitor, making rehearsals a vital necessity before going to shoot on-location in the streets of Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh.
However, while it is all good to speak of the hardships that went into making Wadjda, it matters not one jot unless the film can stand on its own two legs and walk with pride. Fortunately, Wadjda manages this with aplomb.
The first time actress Waad Mohammed plays the titular role so well that I found it hard to believe that she had no previous acting experience. Mohammed shows a girl determined to obtain a thing rendered taboo by the mere fact of her gender as well as a normal girl living in the modern era, such as wearing converse to school and then colouring the white toe cap black when told she must wear black shoes.
But what makes her performance noteworthy is that she never seems to acknowledge the daring things society would label her to be doing. Wadjda wants a bike because her friend Abdullah has one and she wants to race her friend. Although the social scandal this would cause is told to her, Wadjda’s resolve is not tempered.
Credit must also be giving to Wadjda’s mother (Reem Abdullah) who is assailed from all sides, trying to prevent Wadjda from getting a bicycle (occasionally threatening to marry her off), having to deal with an abusive driver since she cannot drive herself, trying to keep her husband (Sultan Al Assaf) from getting a second wife so he can have a son while also adhering to the strict social conventions of Saudi Arabia. It’s quite a lot to do in one film and Abdullah takes it in her stride.
While Wadjda is not trying to ram a message down your throat, it does seem to make you wonder at the cultural differences between Saudi Arabia and us in the Western World. One such thing that bemused me was the fact that a girl named Salma being married while she is still only around twelve years old. Another example was Wadjda’s mother, when trying on a dress, had to go to the ladies toilets as there were no fitting rooms for women in the shop.
Finally, this didn’t come so much as a surprise for I knew women are not allowed to be the same room with an unmarried man (the phrasing may be incorrect by hopefully you know what I mean), but a scene where male builders overlook the girl’s school playground forced the girls (except Wadjda) to go where they could not be seen by them really shows the difference between Saudi Arabia’s restrictiveness of women compared to the Western World’s relaxed attitude.
Yet Wadjda does not cry out at this and say “Look how much better the Western World is at treating women”, rather Wadjda shows the life for women, both young and adult, in Saudi Arabia for what it is, without inviting comparison to other cultures.
But, as Haifaa al-Mansour has said, Wadjda is a film that is meant to make you laugh and cry a little and in that regard it certainly succeeds. There a sublime moments of comedy interwoven the overarching narrative, such as referring Adbullah’s uncle seeking to be elected as “the man with the huge moustache”, even going so far to say that it could be used to land an aeroplane on it.
But it also causes you to have those little pangs of emotion as, when Wadjda tries to put herself on her father’s family tree, she finds in the morning that her name has been taken off, as only boys are written on the family tree.
All in all, Wadjda is a thoroughly enjoyable film which allows us a unique look into a completely different culture. It’s at times funny, emotional and, despite al-Mansour’s statements to the contrary, does have quite a pro-women feel to it which makes it all the more enjoyable.
Thank you all again for reading this review, I hope you enjoyed it. In case you missed my inaugural review of Ernest et Célestine, click on the name to have a read. Also don’t forget to share this article, to leave a comment as well as leaving I like if you did enjoy this review.
Also, if you fancy writing for No English Moviember, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you all again for reading and this Friday shall see my next No-English Moviember review, and a return to Euro-centrism in my reviews, my review of the Danish drama film The Hunt.