When I’d first heard of Wadjda back when it came out, I was amazed to see it not make the following edition of the list. I’ve made mention in the past that greatness is not the only criteria for a film to make the list; importance is also a strong factor, and Wadjda is a film that screams of importance. It was the first film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, and not only that, it was also the first Saudi film to be directed by a woman. Due to the culture and religious laws of Saudi Arabia, this last fact is of extra-special noteworthiness; often, director Haifaa al-Mansour had to direct the film and the actors from the back of a van, as she could not be seen publicly mingling with the male crew members. Despite these important firsts, al-Mansour ended up changing the original ending of her script to ensure the film would not be seen as a “film with a message”, like the similarly-important Afghani film Osama; this would be a pure tale of a simple story, and little more than that. In regards to this goal al-Mansour had in mind for the finished product, I think she underestimated her own burgeoning cinematic voice and its need to speak up about the hardships her gender endures in the Middle East, as I was able to detect quite a bit of subtext to the character of Wadjda and her personality. Even still, at whatever level you watch the film at, Wadjda does its job and does it very well.
Like so many other films that opt for the simple path, Wadjda is named for its title character, a young Saudi girl who, after seeing it delivered to a store she frequents, wants nothing more than to buy a bike so she can race her friend Abdullah, and hopefully win. Unfortunately, being a young girl in Saudi Arabia, her buying the bike is easier said than done, and even less acceptable to the country’s practices. Even so, Wadjda the character is more than just a young girl in Saudi Arabia, and she goes through several attempts to raise the money herself regardless, from selling black market handmade goods at school to entering a Qur’an recital competition with a top prize of 1,000 riyals. You’ll have to pardon me for going a little more in-depth with the plot than I probably should’ve, as the film is only just over an hour and a half long, but I wanted to give off a good perception of Wadjda as a character, as that is arguably more important to this film than the actions Wadjda undertakes to achieve her goal i.e. the plot. It is this aspect that I think makes for most of the appeal of the film, and like I said in the opener, it is there regardless of al-Mansour’s intention of having it be there or not, almost as if she couldn’t help herself. Now, for the film itself; al-Mansour has stated that she took great inspiration from neorealist directors like De Sica, as well as Jafar Panahi, and it shows greatly in the look and feel of the film, aside from a few snippets of music, which actually feel a little innocuous against the neorealist undertones of the picture. Even being technically a neorealist film, I still got a good bit of enjoyment out of it, though I am willing to concede that this is mostly because of the novelty of the film coming from Saudi Arabia and breaking so many cultural barriers. As for the technical aspects, al-Mansour had a very odd habit of occasionally framing actors at the extreme edge of the screen, something I noticed early on and spent most of the rest of the film trying to figure out why she did this, and I couldn’t come up with a good reason why. Maybe it was just a stylistic decision, but aside from the very good quality of the footage, it was all I could mention of the cinematography, which was otherwise solid if a little rudimentary. I’d also like to make special mention of Waad Mohammed, the young girl who plays Wadjda; this is her first film, and she plays the character so realistically like a young kid, with a hint of snark and more than a hint of gall, that it made the film that much more successful than it would’ve had a less capable kid (not even an actor, just a kid) been given the role. Nicely done.
Wadjda, in another milestone, would go on to be the first submission from Saudi Arabia to be considered for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, though it would not make it into the official five nominations. Once again, I can’t help but be amused at how the Saudis are so proud of this film, when all one has to do is dig into it at even a cursory level to uncover a lot about what it says for the state of women’s rights and the stifling of such in that country, so for the country to rise up and back the film as much as it has has got to be a smidgen of hypocrisy to me. That aside, this is really a good enough film for a country to back as its entry for the Foreign Language Oscar, especially one that otherwise would not have had an entry due to its limited cinematic endeavors. But, that’d be all I could say for Wadjda; it is good enough, but only good enough. You could do a lot worse than this, but neither will you be particularly wowed, except if you also include the circumstances of the film’s creation and production, which I wouldn’t blame you if you went ahead and did. Like I said, it is definitely important enough to make the list; it is merely an extra benefit that the film is not half bad as well.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10