[A version of this review can also be found in the Portland Observer: http://portlandobserver.com/news/2013/oct/22/inspired-determination/.]
I imagine that American audiences watching "WADJDA" (8) -- the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and the first directed by a Saudi woman -- will be doing a lot of clucking over how restrictive life is for Saudi women and girls. Yet when I scanned for reviews after seeing the film, nearly all of them were written by men. Film criticism, like most other spheres of influence in American culture, is dominated by male voices. I'm guessing that most of us would not even notice that fact.
A film like this offers Americans some opportunities that we rarely get. Most obviously, it gives us a rare window into everyday life for Saudi women and girls. Director Haifaa al-Mansour gives us a fairly simple story of a middle-school-aged girl, Wadjda -- whose small rebellions evidence simply a desire to be herself -- and fills that story with particular details. Wadjda's determined self-expression is evident, for example, in the hangers she has attached to the radio on which she listens to forbidden American pop music; in the black Converse high-tops she wears under the long, shapeless gray dress that serves as her school uniform; and in her little schemes for earning the money she would need to buy a bicycle so that she can race (and beat) the boy with whom she shouldn't even be associating.
But the film also offers us an opportunity which I wonder if we are really up for -- the opportunity for self-examination. It is easy for Americans to judge a culture like this because its flaws are readily apparent to us. How strange to imagine living in a society where a girl riding a bike is unheard of because of concerns that it will damage her fertility, or where a woman is not allowed to drive a car! Yet part of where the film succeeds is in demonstrating how inevitable such limitations seem to be for many members of that society, and how its norms are enforced, even by those who are oppressed by them. A film like this, which deftly deconstructs a culture that seems alien, has the potential to awaken our sensitivity to manifestations of oppression in our own culture.
The film is perceptive about the strictures of the girl's life, and that of her mother, classmates, and teachers. Wadjda's father mostly works and lives apart from her and her mother, a real beauty who works as a teacher but isn't allowed to manage her own money or drive herself to work. Instead she must pay a driver who addresses her with the disdainful tone one might use for an errant child. The mother clearly surpasses her driver in education and class, yet her position in the societal hierarchy accords him license to treat her with disdain. Her life is plagued with other senseless but immovable complications, including the worry that her husband will give in to pressure to take on another wife because she cannot produce a male heir.
Her situation does not, however, motivate her to push for more for Wadjda; rather, she is quick to reinforce such limits with her headstrong daughter, passing on gossip about a scandal involving one of the girl's older classmates and dismissing the girl's desire for a bicycle as unthinkable.
Wadjda views the many restrictions that characterize her life with disdain typical of many adolescents. When her mother lectures her, she turns up her American music; and when instructed by her principal to replace her high-top Converse with the more feminine all-black shoes worn by her classmates, she responds by coloring the white portions of her shoes with a black marker.
The willfulness evident in Wadjda’s determination to be herself, makes her stand-out among her classmates, whose rebellions are more contained. In such a restrictive system, only such outliers have any real shot at achieving anything beyond the limits of what society expects from them. Though perhaps not as apparent to us, the same is true in our culture too -- that is, only the most determined outlier thinkers are likely to achieve anything very different from our expectations of them.
In Saudi culture, the image of a girl on a bicycle is unthinkable, the achievement of that aspiration heroic. But listening to all of the ways that Wadjda's parents and teachers communicate to her what she cannot do brought to mind how a similar thing happens here to girls and women, or to other groups underrepresented in positions of influence.
Similarly, I found it instructive to reflect on the ways in which Wadjda's world communicates her value relative to men. In Saudi Arabia, the women are draped in so much black as to shield them almost entirely from view, while men wear white.
The enforcers in Wadjda's world are nearly all women, who constantly remind her of and model for her the responsibility to shield men from seeing her ("if you can see them, they can see you") or hearing her talk ("your voice is your nakedness.") Perhaps our ways of communicating our values and expectations to women and girls are more subtle, or perhaps we are less attuned to them.
Director Mansour has found a way to tell this story with lightness and subtlety, helped by the feisty spirit of a child. But don't let that lightness fool you (as it seems to have fooled at least one male critic) into thinking of this story as slight. Her heroine's relentlessness, though naive, is also canny.
Wadjda tumbles to a strategy for achieving that coveted bicycle (a Koran-reciting contest with a cash prize) that reflects her underestimation of the fervor behind the rules that confine her but also embodies just the sort of conviction that is necessary to surpass such boundaries. If you're open to it -- and if, like me, you sometimes feel a bit confined yourself -- you just might be inspired.