Wadjda is an award-winning movie marketed as the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia. As a western feminist, I consumed available press about the film and decided to watch it as an act of support for the woman who made it and the story I understood that it told. My conjured images of black shrouds in the searing sun suggested that I would be moved and educated by this film. How surprising, then, is the discovery of delight!
Black forms moving slowly on sunlit streets do in fact inhabit the film. My western eyes see this without fully comprehending as I am willing to suspend judgement.
Behind the gates and doorways, in the daily action of the real lives of the largely middle class women and girls we encounter in this movie, all is completely as we know it. Appliances are modern, gleaming and available for the plentiful food. Western popular music stimulates the tween girl as she surreptitiously creates bracelets and other “black market items.” Mother and daughter share intimacies in large airy well-decorated rooms. Discreet tensions and open conflict overflows from these spaces to the rooftop above where the women still dress in jeans and cool shirts looking down on their world.
Certainly the conservative culture controls female life. Wadjda watches her dignified, beautiful mother carefully groom her hair and apply her make-up in the morning before disappearing in a swirl of darkness. The girl flares in anger when a taxi driver, clearly economically and educationally disadvantaged and possibly an illegal immigrant, chides the woman like a child for being tardy in getting into his taxi for the three-hour ride through the desert to her employment. The woman’s friend ultimately rejects this ordeal to find liberating employment in a local hospital. The dynamics gently explored include the powerlessness of the women , the control of the driver, the ingenuity of the children and the authority of a male even if a mere boy.
Wadjda watches the mother she adores measure her own worth through her father’s eyes in terms of the quality and quanity of food she prepares. She struggles to comprehend why this beauty subverts her own desires for style of dress and hair to please a man so rarely present. Wadjda is beginning to comprehend too well that, in her world, biology is destiny.
Contemplating the viewing of this film, I considered that this would indeed be a “foreign” culture. How startling then to understand the complexity of emotions seen in Wadjda as she endures her conservative, female-dominated religious school. The insistence of conformity in appearance, down to the shoes which are worn, the absolute prohibition of any feminine decoration, including nail polish, the suspicion of female friendship, much less love, remain cross-cultural signifiers of patriarchal social systems and female enforcerment. Similarly, scenes where students mindlessly recite memorized “beliefs,” use of shaming and group ostracism as disciplinary tactics and consequent consistent competitive subcultures are also well recognised.
Startling and joyous to feel recognition of the delight of a child’s physical freedom. As Wadjda runs down the street, even skips a bit, walks solitary but dreams of riding a bike, the memory of that joy is irrepressible. When a child is lucky enough to have a full stomach, a secure roof and no present threat of physical harm or illness, exploring the sun -filled day with muscular limbs is a complete pleasure. Even from my sedentary perch, watching Wadjda, I could recall so many hours jumping in the sun-drenched Chesapeake waters. I could almost feel again the breeze through my hair on a spring evening as I rode my bike through shaded streets of row homes or as I explored city spots which I could pretend were dark forests.
Watching Wadjda play with her precocious friend Abdullah, I envisioned my fair-haired daughter racing her friends aside a swimming pool in the summertime. I remember the tension and gladness I felt as I watched her small frame dart through other little bodies in pursuit of a soccer ball on a fall day. I felt contentment that, though grown up, she still chases my puppy down the lane.
Wadjda is not a film which will change the world, if indeed any film can. It is not a soapbox for any particular ideology. The movie treats character and culture with respect but not without a critical lens. For me the movie was a surprise. It was a reminder that there are universals in life which transcend culture and political or religious systems: childhood, sunlight, clean and open air, curiosity, hope, movement, friendship and love.