Sunday, January 11, 2015

"Wadjda," shows respect for Saudi culture while standing up for human rights.

A boy peddles up to ten-year-old Wadjda (plucky Waad Mohammed), snatches the hijab from her head and plays keep away. She tries to grab it, but he speeds off on his bike. She yells after him, boasting that she will beat him in a race - once she gets a bike.

Saudi director Haifaa Al-Mansour at "Wadjda" screening 
Wadjda,” is a deceptively simple story of a girl’s pursuit of money to buy a bike. But it’s more than that. Wadjda is courageously challenging Saudi patriarchal traditions. Saudi girls are forbidden to ride bikes because it is seen as dangerous to their virtue. Wadjda shouldn’t even be talking to the boy on the street because he isn’t in her family circle. She seems freer without the stolen hijab despite knowing that she will be admonished when she arrives at school. Cheeky Wadjda is always pushing the boundaries of what she can get away with. Under her black abaya, she wears white tennis shoes. When her principal (Saudi TV star Ahd) insists that she wear proper school shoes, Wadjda colors her tennies black with a marker.

There is great power in this. Society changes with small acts of defiance. When someone has the courage to stand up for themselves by performing the unjustly forbidden act, it liberates others to do the same. It is akin to a black teen sitting at a “whites only” lunch counter. This simple act of moxie has an impact on the boy. He is so intrigued by Wadjda’s single-minded pursuit that he lets her practice riding his bike. There is hope for the next generation yet.

Female writer/director, Haifaa Al-Mansour, gives us a rare peak into the home life of Saudi women. I was surprised to find that they enjoy shopping at malls for the latest fashions that can only be worn in front of family. It appears that Wadjda is allowed to express herself freely in the confines of her room.

Wadjda’s father (Sultan Al Assaf) seems to love her. He brings her a little gift when he has been away. But we soon discover that he has gone looking for a new wife. His parents are pressuring him to replace Wadjda’s mother because she can’t bear him a son.

Unfortunately, Wadjda’s mother (played by Saudi television star Reen Abdullah) is a product of the patriarchal society that is displacing her. She refuses to accept a job closer to home because the female employees don’t cover their faces. She forbids Wadjda from buying the bike. But she is too busy trying to hold onto her husband to notice Wadjda’s many financial schemes. She proudly helps her daughter prepare for a Quran recitation contest not realizing that Wadjda has entered to win money for the bike.

In the attempt to belong, Wadjda hangs her name on an empty branch of the family tree. Later she discovers that it has been removed because she isn’t a man. It becomes clear that this patriarchal society wasn’t created to benefit her or her mom. They must learn the delicate balance between respecting their beloved land while standing up for themselves.

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal

Jana’s note: It is an incredible accomplishment that this film even got made. It is the first feature film shot in Saudi Arabia. What makes it even more ground-breaking is that it was directed by a Saudi woman! The director's journey is actually an example of the theme of challenging unjust Saudi patriarchal traditions, while showing respect to the culture. Director Haifaa Al-Mansour refrained from being in the presence of men not in her family circle by watching the shoot on a monitor from inside a tent and sending messengers back and forth or using a two-way radio to convey her adjustments to the actors. While standing up to unjust practices, the movie makes it clear that there is much about Saudi society that the director loves.

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