The Saudi Arabian film industry is still in it’s infancy, having only really started to take off in 2006. However, even in it’s infancy, there are compelling styles and narratives being told through the medium and if Haifaa al-Monsour’s Wadjda is any indication of the future, we can surely expect more cinematic richness to come.
Wadjda is the simple tale of a young girl wishing to own a green bicycle. However, the titular Wadjda is full of spunk and wit; qualities that hardly align with the ideals of the crushing patriarchy of Saudi Arabia. Despite this, Wadjda remains undeterred in her quest, fueled by unshakable determination and optimism.
Not only is this the first film to be film entirely in Saudi Arabia, it is also the made by Saudi Arabia’s first female director. Though al-Monsour has worked on short films in the past, Wadjda marks her first full length picture. However al-Monsour shows no greenness behind the camera and infact her control and precision rivals that of any seasoned veteran. Her style is incredibly economical, carefully constructing frames that contribute to a tightly wound narrative and emotionally intimate tale.
Also acting as the screenwriter, al-Monsour’s writing is an extraordinary example of observational realism. The film is told through Wadjda’s perspective, and even as an 11-year-old, she sees the injustices in the gender roles of her home. As she observes how her mother, classmates, and teachers all respond societal expectation, she mimics none of these women, rather forges her own path and self identity in a male dominated world. Such scenes can often be plagued by tropes and appear quite staged but al-Monsour’s handles the script with such subtlety and tact that our only impression is honest and true.
Just because the film is told through the realist patina, doesn’t mean the film in bogged down with an austere ambiance. The overall tone of the film is quite whimsical, reflecting it’s adventurous and innocent lead. It’s this playfulness that provides the film with full bodied characters and allows the film to deal with these pressing issues through both a palatable yet firm pathway.
The film documents the gross oppression of women, and at times feels both suffocating and inescapable. But the true brilliance of Wadjda is that despite the bleakness of the circumstance, there is still hope. Throughout the film, Wadjda always stays true to herself and her identity, refusing the any person or system to write her off. In many ways, Wadjda is a reflection of al-Monsour herself. Despite living in a male dominated country and working in a male dominated field, al-Monsour creates art that reflects her own values and beliefs. Wadjda and al-Monsour demonstrate no amount of systematic oppression can contain their steadfast resolve, devotion to self identity, and courage to achieve their goals. It’s this very attitude that proves change is possible; as long as we keep on pedaling.