Unjustly shut out of the Best Foreign Language Film category at this year’s Academy Awards, Wadjda (2012) is a perfect example of a film that is never eclipsed – but certainly augmented – by its remarkable context. Emanating from a Middle Eastern country that outlaws cinema and where women are denied certain everyday rights (or, indeed, a sense of autonomy), Wadjda is the first feature film shot both entirely in Saudi Arabia and by a female Saudi filmmaker, Haifaa al-Mansour, whose neorealist cinematic influences shine brightly in this heartfelt and profoundly touching debut starring newcomer Waad Mohammed.
Mohammed plays the titular ten-year-old, Wadjda, with a charming grasp of her conflicted and oppressed character. The film is set in a present day Saudi Arabia steeped in religious rules and stipulations. Our young heroine, a nonconformist who transcends normalities by disregarding her headscarf, wearing customised Converse trainers and listening to ‘evil’ pop music, actively rejects the rules of her strict society by consistently failing to fall into lines carefully placed by those around her. Submissively deprived of the freedom to speak for themselves or even carry out mundane tasks such as driving, the women are taught from a young age to conform to the words of the Qur’an and distance themselves from expressing individuality.
Reminded by her stern headmistress that “a woman’s voice is her nakedness,” Wadjda forgoes her peers and does what she chooses, making and selling bracelets and mix tapes and displaying a budding entrepreneurial charisma that sees her falling foul of her mother and teachers on numerous occasions. Making a profitable commodification out of her loose association with religious demarcation, Wadjda decides that she wants to buy a bike to race her friend, something that – despite being frowned upon by those who believe that’s something only a boy should be doing – requires her to study the Qur’an and at least consider playing by the rules.
Wadjda is an assured and sweetly understated debut from al-Mansour, who deserves to go down in the cinematic annals as a filmmaker whose brio is matched by her artistic integrity. Bolstered by an extraordinary performance from Mohammed, whose precocious likability is irrepressible, the film is as much a joyful depiction of youth as it is a portrait of restraint. Shunning an attempt to unpack or over-analyse issues regarding female passivity or religious constructs and limitations, al-Mansour instead charts life in continuous motion, capturing the beauty in an outwardly rigid country whilst telling the tale of a confident girl and her pursuit of a bicycle.
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