“A woman’s voice is her nakedness.” So says a school administrator to our 13 year old heroine, Wadjda. It seems enough that polite Saudi Arabian society calls for women to cloak their bodies in black but no, speaking outdoors for Wadjda is the equivalent of Vanessa Hudgens in “Spring Breakers” fondling James Franco's glock. This is difficult for Wadjda to accept and so, mostly, she doesn’t. She paints her fingernails, rocks black Converse, lets her abaya fall open to show off her skinny jeans, allows the hijab to fall back so all can see her long black hair. In her spare time she crafts mix tapes of rock ‘n’ roll and scams friends at school for a little extra spending cash. But don’t presume Wadjda to see a rebel without a cause. To the contrary, her cause is a shiny new green bike, never mind that women in Saudi Arabian society forbidden from riding bikes for fear their virtue be sullied.
Well, people in Saudia Arabia aren’t supposed to make movies either. Writer and Director Haifaa Al Mansour’s “Wadjda” is the first feature ever filmed within Saudi Arabia, a fact that I dare say might boggle the mind of an American, seeing as how our country is filled with people who, if the mood should strike, can try and make films on their iPhones. Mansour was granted permission to shoot her debut, but still, per reports, had to film covertly. After all, if a woman’s voice is her nakedness and this film is Mansour’s voice….. Knowing this allows for “Wadjda” to work on multiple levels but, of course, first and foremost, the film needs to work on its own level, which is to say it needs to ably tell its story. Which it does, employing a very straight-forward narrative to strong effect.
The description of “Wadjda’s” protagonist probably makes her sound like a caricature of a disenfranchised youth, the western world’s attempt to fashion a Kathleen Hanna of Riyadh. But the performance of Waad Mohammed resists the typical. It is her first acting role and, thus, likely she is simply playing a version of herself, but that is not to suggest she does not bring memorable flourishes to the part. For instance, she has this distinctive double-take, throwing her head back and sizing up her varying companions, calling shenanigans with her expression. It’s the funniest thing in the movie. What she does above all, however, is craft a young girl raised to be soft-spoken and polite who acts out not so much by being obnoxious and disrespectful, but by being thoughtful and forthright. That is, the performance and screenplay do not betray Wadjda’s upbringing nor sphere of influence, but neither do they betray her core attitude. And the film is remarkably effortless in conveying this with the simplest of tones and plot maneuverings.
Wadjda’s journey is mirrored by her mother’s (Reem Abdullah), who imparts the value of Islamic tradition on her daughter but also seems secretly, and occasionally openly, proud of her daughter’s independence. Indeed, Islamic tradition means that her husband (Sultan Al Assaf), pining for a son, may take a second wife, thereby fracturing this family. That subplot painfully underscores how aloof both mother and daughter seem to feel in this society. The script feints toward Wadjda eventually embracing that society and its strict religion, only to undercut it in a moment that may be “expected” but is nonetheless triumphant. It is a moment, I must imagine, open to controversy in Mansour’s country, employing religion as a means to an end. And it speaks to both the character's resourcefulness.
This is not my culture and these are not my values. I respect everyone’s beliefs, whatever they may be, so long as those beliefs are true to what they feel in their heart and not simply impressed upon them with such ferocity that they feel they have no choice. The end of “Wadjda” is a moment earned in more ways than one, and as heartbreaking as it is delightful. You are so happy for little Wadjda in that moment, but simultaneously so sad. The closing shots are set in such a way to make it appear as if she has reached the edge of the world as she knows it. I kind of wished she would have just keep right on going.