Wadjda is an 11-year old girl living in a grotty part of Riyadh who chafes under the restrictions of life for females in the ultra-conservative kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where a strict interpretation of religious dogma permeates every aspect of life. She is friendly with Abdullah, a boy in the neighbourhood, and desperately wants to own a bicycle so that she can beat him in a race. Doing small deals isn’t going to bring in the cash she needs to buy the new green bike she covets, but then she hears about the Koran-reciting contest at school, the prize money from which would be more than enough to buy her dream machine. Unfortunately there are two problems with her scheme. Firstly, the contest requires a lot of memorisation, and the opposition is tough. Secondly, even if she wins, girls just don’t cycle, so she will face severe opposition if she tries. Women must be virtuous, and bicycling falls into the category of immodest actions. Meanwhile Wadjda’s father, disappointed that her mother cannot give him a son, is thinking of taking another wife and is absent for much of the time to show his displeasure at wife number one’s lack of procreative ability.
In a country which forbids to women human rights taken for granted elsewhere, such as to vote or drive, it is impressive that a woman has managed to make a film, especially as she had to obtain permission to do so from the government. Not that director Haifaa Al Mansour learned her trade in Saudi Arabia. She had to study film in Australia, and for her film’s outdoor scenes had to direct from a van, watching on a monitor, because of the prohibition on men and women congregating together in public.
Wadjda is the sort of film that Western liberals will coo over, believing that here is a depiction , in a deeply repressive culture, of a positive female role model. If young Wadjda can follow her dream, there is hope for other women in Saudi Arabia: it won’t always be the bigoted, misogynistic country it is at present, they‘ll think. Unfortunately that view is somewhat rosy, and Wadjda, and the director who put her adventure on screen, are very much the exceptions that will prove the iron rule. The achievement is certainly remarkable, but as a piece of social propaganda it will not make a jot of difference to the everyday lives of ordinary Saudi women. Even if they were able to see it, something that depends on the will of husbands and fathers, how would they relate it to their own lives, and to what extent would the men viewing it consider the power they wield to be unjust and without moral legitimacy?
What is particularly dispiriting is the way in which women are shown to be complicit in their own repression. Wadjda’s mother, clearly an intelligent woman, is shocked that a friend is working alongside men at the local hospital, and has her face uncovered. She initially scoffs at Wadjda’s cycling aspiration, and tells her that girls who cycle can’t have babies. The head teacher at Wadjda’s school, with her sour face, ensures that her charges internalise the restrictive mores of society. Even Wadjda’s baseball boots are considered transgressive and she is told by the head to wear conventional black shoes. Wadjda’s response, to colour the white caps with a black felt-tip, is a very minor act of rebelliousness, one that only works by not being noticed. Yet the boots are seen as emblematic of her defiance of social norms in the English-language poster. The Italian-language version seems rather more honest in its summation of the film, though pink is impossibly racy even for Saudi girls who, like their elders, stick to regulation black in public.
What then of Wadjda, and her yearning for independence in a society that prohibits it for women. By making her pre-pubescent, her actions can be discounted, because what she can get away with would not be acceptable if she were several years older. Also the film has an easy way out by having her father away from home most of the time, thereby removing him as an authority figure from the house Wadjda shares with her mother. Waad Mohammed, who plays Wadjda, turns in a fantastic performance, but you wonder how different her life is from that of the character she plays, and how typical is the freedom she enjoyed, given that she was allowed to act in a film at all, compared to her peers.
In real life, if Wadjda carried on in this way she might be expected to be married off as a troublesome daughter (and one of her classmates, not much older, comes to Koran class and says she has been married to a 20-year old man), or even find herself the victim of an ‘honour’ killing. This is after all the country where a father murdered his daughter for chatting to a man on Facebook, and where a brother shot dead his two sisters for mixing with men to whom they were not related. Wadjda is a fantasy, a superficially uplifting film that seems to bear little relationship to lives as they are actually lived.
There is a telling moment when Wadjda is looking at her father’s family tree, which is painted on a large piece of board. There are no women’s names on it because women don’t count so, refusing to be invisible, she writes her name on a piece of paper and pins it on next to her father’s name. Later she finds that the paper has been torn off and screwed up. That acts as a metaphor of the invisibility of women in Saudi society. The film’s concluding shot is of a triumphant Wadjda looking off into the distance. But it is the same sort of illusory freedom that Antoine experiences on the beach at the end of Les Quatre Cents Coups, and just as Antoine has not escaped, so Wadjda is still a prisoner of her society, and it will surely eventually crush her individualism. An uplifting ending to a film does not necessarily translate into a happy fulfilled life.
As an example of this illusory freedom, apparently Saudi women can ride bicycles now – but only in restricted recreational areas. Wadjda’s mother and other local women have to rely on a boorish male driver to get around, both sides well aware of the power he wields over them. A bicycle is one means of obtaining some autonomy, but not if you can only use it in an area reserved for recreation, and doubtless segregated. While the Arab Spring has brought radical changes to other countries in the region, on this evidence Saudi Arabia seems remarkably untouched. Wadjda is not about change, as al Mansour has claimed, it is about stagnation. There is a reason why the Saudi government allowed it to be made. They must have thought the subject safe and unthreatening to the status quo, and they were correct.
Much of the press coverage of the film will undoubtedly use the word ‘optimistic’, but I found the experience of watching it deeply pessimistic and depressing, even while amused at Wadjda’s antics. Al Mansour said in an interview that “I hope it will inspire many girls in Saudi to become filmmakers … That makes me very proud.” Well that would be good, and one can only hope that her dream is fulfilled and that she herself goes on to make more films about the experience of being a woman in Saudi Arabia. But she also said, in a chillingly offhand way, “People have contacted me with death threats, but that doesn't matter to me. Everyone in the media business in Saudi receives death threats.” Wadjda won’t have to get much older before she starts getting death threats too, if she doesn’t mend her ways and remember her modesty.