One of the most powerful abilities of art in general – and, given the direct power and popularity of the moving image, perhaps film in particular – is to immerse the audience in life far outside their experiences. Wadjda, the first film to be shot entirely inside Saudi Arabia and the first film directed by a Saudi woman, is a compelling example of this power. To a Western perspective, life for Saudi women – who are forbidden from driving, voting, or mixing with unrelated men – seems like an appalling human rights violation, yes, but also so far removed from anything we recognise as normal that it’s easy to forget that both victims and perpetrators of this injustice are as complexly human as we are ourselves. Director Haiffa al Monsour and her excellent cast firmly remind us of this truth, by creating rich characters and drawing us into their lives.
The title character is particularly appealing. Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is a young girl at odds with Saudi society before she can even understand it. Child actors are often awkward even in minor parts, and very rarely capable of carrying a film, but Mohammed’s naturalistic innocence, like seven-year-old Ana Torrent’s in the Spanish classic The Spirit of the Beehive, makes her so convincing and plain adorable as a character that the audience root for her from the first. Whether cheekily mocking her mother’s driver’s bad grammar or bartering over the bracelets she sells to her classmates, her boldness and shameless self-interest shock the adults around her.
When Wadjda sets her heart on acquiring a bicycle in order to race her friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Algohani), ultimately entering a Koran recital competition to win the money for one, the two most important women in her life can no longer ignore her nonconformist status. Wadjda’s mother (Reem Abdullah) loves her daughter, but is too beaten down by her own struggles to understand what she’s going through. She is dependent upon a crude and disrespectful driver to get her to her job, and a new source of stress has come up as Wadjda’s father (Sultan Al Assaf) is under familial pressure to take a second wife. She is left in the humiliating position of having to perpetually seduce her own husband to keep his interest, dressing up in a gaudy red dress and smilingly suppressing her anger and hurt. Meanwhile Wadjda’s teacher Ms Hussa, a Nurse Ratched-style softly spoken tyrant who ruthlessly punishes any deviation from tradition in dress or behaviour, singles her out as a particularly troublesome pupil. It would be easy to make Ms Hussa a simple villain, but Al Monsour cleverly gives her a moment where she tells Wadjda “You remind me of yourself at your age”, suggesting that in this society, a strong-natured woman’s only ultimate outlet may be ruling over other women.
Wadjda shows an understanding of Saudi life that no outsider, however well-meaning, could replicate. Rather than launching a diatribe against gender segregation, al Monsour depicts these three women’s lives in vivid detail, and trusts the problems in their society to emerge organically in the process. Wadjda confronts serious injustices, but it’s also tremendously tender, sometimes funny and surprisingly uplifting. Wadjda’s spirit, battered but uncrushed, becomes a small symbol of hope – she could grow into Ms Hussa or her mother, but she could also grow up to be a woman who changes the world a little, just as al Monsour has done through this captivating and memorable work of storytelling that, for the first time, allows Saudi women’s voices to speak previously unheard truths about their lives in their own voices.