First Films: Haifaa Al-Mansour’s “Wadjda”

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This is the fifth and final in a short series of posts on directors’ first films—films often overshadowed by the blockbusters that come after them but that catch their makers at an important stage of evolution while providing plenty delights of their own. But now, to end the First Films series with a nod toward the future, here’s a look at a recent debut film by a promising new director.

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More so than any of the other films I have considered over the course of this series, Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Wadjda (2012) is a film of firsts: not only is it Al-Mansour’s feature debut, but it’s also the first feature to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, the first feature directed by a female Saudi filmmaker, and Saudi Arabia’s first submission to the Oscars’ Best Foreign Language Film category.

Wadjda’s eponymous protagonist (Waad Mohammed) is an eleven-year-old girl who lives in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s quiet, scorching, and still developing capital city. We meet her in the film’s masterful opening scene, where she is first distinguished from the other schoolgirls by her black Converse high tops—the others, more staid, wear Mary Janes. A buoyant rebel from the beginning, Wadjda falls out of the religious song the girls are singing in chorus (“I gave my heart to God, and I think he has a place for me…”) in order to wave at someone at the other end of the room. When the teacher calls on her to sing the song alone, she can’t—or won’t.

In next few scenes, we meet most of the other people important to Wadjda’s world. Her mother (Reem Abduallah) has two problems: first, because Saudi women don’t have the right to drive, she has to ride to work with several other women in a stuffy beat-up SUV driven by a man (Mohammed Zahir) who has lost patience with her perennial tardiness; and second, because she cannot have another child (a son) after complications during Wadjda’s birth, her husband (Sultan Al Assaf) is actively seeking out a new wife. Accordingly, Wadjda’s father is mostly absent throughout the movie, though his absence is the “present” kind. Early on, before we know the whole situation, he charms us by giving Wadjda a pretty piece of obsidian. In another scene he plays video games; later he compliments his wife’s cooking, before taking the platter in to eat with his friends.

Then there’s Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), who starts off a bit of a bully, stealing Wadjda’s breakfast and racing away on his bike, then snatching her headscarf. “You think you could catch up with me?” Abdullah taunts, pedaling away. From where she stands, Wadjda shouts out to him: “If I had a bike, you’d see!” It’s Abdullah’s bicycle that prompts the film to take its shape as what my writer friends and I call a “desire story.” In a “desire story,” the main character wants something, a tangible thing, more than anything else; during her quest to obtain it, she meets increasingly daunting obstacles, as well as some opportunities; and in the end, resolving the built-up narrative tension, she either succeeds or doesn’t.

Tribeca Wadjda

In Wadjda’s case, Wadjda wants her own bicycle, a green one she’s picked out at a shop. It costs 800 riyals—“Too expensive for you,” the shopkeeper tells her, setting up the first obstacle. Girls don’t ride bikes in this society, and anyway her parents won’t buy it for her. So Wadjda, bright and entrepreneurial, tries to earn money on her own—making homemade bracelets to sell at school (her teacher catches her) and at the mall (the man at the kiosk scoffs at her), conning a friend’s secret boyfriend into an extra 20 riyals. Then, with less than 100 riyals to her name, Wadjda finds her opportunity to break out of chump change: a Koran recitation contest whose prize is 1,000 riyals. She studies, sacrificing some of her savings to haggle a video game study guide from the shopkeeper. Meanwhile Abdullah, who’s turned sweet, lets her use his bike to learn how to ride—because naturally she doesn’t know—and her mother’s parallel “desire” subplot to keep her husband is looking less and less hopeful. The day of the contest comes, Wadjda competes, and… you’ll have to watch the movie to find out whether she gets her bike or not.

But the tangible object of desire in a “desire story” always has a more abstract emotional counterpart. This is where stakes come in. So what’s at stake for Wadjda and in Wadjda, echoing off of its every surface? Mobility, I think, and the freedom and power that come with it. Foregrounding Wadjda’s version of this desire and these stakes—boys get to have fun riding their bikes and girls don’t—allows the film to avoid the risk of self-serious preachiness, but at the same time, using it to illuminate and imply the scope of the “adult” version—Saudi women, dependent on and subordinate to men, have very little control over important parts of their lives—allows the film to avoid the risk of cutesy weightlessness. In turns we laugh as Wadjda schemes, cry as her mother falls apart in the face of the imminent ruin borne of divorce in her society.

Haifaa Al-Mansour

Haifaa Al-Mansour

It’s tempting to imagine director Haifaa Al-Mansour’s journey to making the film as yet another parallel to Wadjda’s quest—a likable Saudi woman subverting societal norms, precedents, and circumstances to have the thing she wants. In interviews, Al-Mansour describes the difficulties she had securing funding for her project in a country with no film industry or proper cinemas, finding actresses willing to do what’s not considered respectable work for women, and even simply directing, which she often had to do remotely from a van because she could not be seen in public with the male film crew. And beyond these meaningful production anecdotes, the film does the important work of rendering Saudi women’s lives intimately and honestly, with a full range of emotions. “It’s hard just to show women as victims,” Al-Mansour told Jon Stewart in an interview on The Daily Show. “We need to show them as people who are proactive, who are trying hard to make their life better.”

While I think it’s necessary to celebrate the vital triumphs Wadjda, with all its “firsts,” represents in our wider world, I also think it’s crucial to give equal attention to Al-Mansour’s powers as a director on the big screen. “I wasn’t trying to clash with people; I was trying to make a film,” she says elsewhere, after all. “I’m making a film in Saudi Arabia—I’m a woman—about a young girl who wants a bicycle. That’s enough. I don’t have to push it.”

That opening scene I mentioned above is as skillfully devised and executed as that of any other fine film: the image of the girls’ shoes not only characterizes the protagonist and establishes the film’s thematic center but also tells us that we are watching something carefully and deliberately done. Another set-up: at the beginning, Wadjda won’t even attempt to sing in front of her classmates, but by the end she’s wagered everything on her singing, showing us just how far her desire for the bicycle has taken her. Throughout the film, Al-Mansour uses music to excellent effect, not only as a way to add texture and dimension to her world but also to reinforce her themes. And with the closing sequence’s well-noted nod to Truffaut’s 400 Blows, the film consciously acknowledges its place in the cinematic tradition, its debt to influence, and, taking a cue from Wadjda herself, its own hard-earned deservingness.

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