Published Oct 03, 2013Wadjda (the first feature shot within the borders of Saudi Arabia, and the first directed by a Saudi woman at that) concerns itself with the oppression and subjugation of females within that locale, noting the contradictions inherent in the socialization and upbringing of girls. One such paradox is the titular Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), a disarmingly candid ten-year-old obsessed with Western pop culture, making mix tapes, bracelets and other contraband items deemed unsuitable by her school.
Her overtly contrary disposition — befriending a local boy (Abdullrahman Algohani), despite going to an all-girls school and bargaining for riyals with men in positions of authority — is as standard-issue as the many simplified metaphors strewn throughout this formulaic pop fantasy. Early on, she's singled out of a group at school for not vocalizing during a choral dictation lesson, punished for not using her voice. Later, she's similarly chastised for speaking loudly when men are within ear's reach.
Contradictions and hypocritical acts such as these ultimately define a narrative that is otherwise driven by a reductive, necessarily simple quest: Wadjda's acquisition of a green bike. As her mother (Reem Abdullah) — a woman in partial denial over her husband's active pursuit of a fertile second wife , one able to birth a male heir for him — notes, "Girls aren't allowed to ride bikes." The rationale, aside from the obvious narrative trajectory of females being forced to rely on male drivers and men for transportation (a control tactic), has to do with the maintenance of a young woman's virtue. This is particularly clear when Wadjda's mother catches her riding around on a friend's bike on the roof and remarks, "Where are you bleeding from?" when she falls off, startled by her mother's aggressive reaction to a simple childhood lark.
Another deliberate act of casuistry stems from Wadjda's plot to acquire the funds to buy her prized bicycle. That her desire to purchase and acquire goods to define herself — something her mother mirrors when she secretly desires a red dress she sees at the mall — may intentionally correspond to the inherently Western tropes existing within the narrative, it comes across almost accidental or incidental. The focus is instead on the means by which Wadjda plans to obtain said funds: a Quran knowledge and recital contest.
Aside from scheming and selling contextually morally objectionable goods to classmates — children that are socially condemned for even the suggestion of Sapphic schoolyard antics — our protagonist's only method of obtaining power and material wealth is by adhering to, and regurgitating, religious text. Though the storyline (reiterating the usual underdog formula) asks the audience to root for Wadjda's attempts to memorize verses from the religious text and memorize bits of Quran trivia, the basic underlying notion is that her only road to escape is through further social indoctrination, which may ultimately have a result contrary to what she actually desires.
Al-Mansour does raise some interesting talking points about the relationship between religion and the subjugation of women but, rather than complicating matters or creating a complex argument, she tends towards simple answers and pat resolutions. Nothing about Wadjda resembles any sort of gritty reality; it's very sanitized and cutesy, pandering to a prescribed Western ideology that suggests the acquisition of an item, even as a metaphor, does in fact lead to blue skies and a happily ever after. (Mongrel Media)