Watching Wadjda: Witnessing a Watershed in Cinema

Private Middle School, Fremont, CA

Strangely enough, the Saudi Arabian film, Wadjda, is in danger of being overlooked for what it indubitably is: a film.  It is difficult, after all, to sidestep it being the first heroic feature directed by a woman—Haifaa al-Mansour—in a country that has no movie industry to speak of and one that is known for its suppression of women.

Yet Wadjda is not just a historical artifact, a possible turning point in a forbidding culture, a cinematic curio.  Ms. Mansour tells the story of a 10-year-old girl, Wadjda, who longs to own a bicycle.   This simple ambition cannot help but become a many-spoked ideal: it is at once adolescent rebellion and gender revolution.  That the director spins all this with understatement, charm and balance bodes well for not only the circumstances from which Wadjda springs but for the state of independent and conscientious filmmaking.

On September 27, 2013, Alsion 11th and 12th graders currently taking the art elective, Film Studies, watched Wadjda attempt to pedal her way free.  Here are some of their thoughts on the film.

“In addition to elegantly creating a pointed yet whispered criticism, a considerable accomplishment of Wadjda is its ability to render its audience sympathetic and contemplative without a barrage of blood-tinged images of atrocious repression and hardship so often exposed to the West. Wadjda triumphs in its ability to create a graceful appeal for reflection on Saudi Arabia in a visually unobtrusive yet layered weave of portrayal.”
—Samantha Mejia (12th grade)

“In some shape or form throughout the film, Wadjda and her mother partake in trying to become the ideal Saudi Arabian woman in the eyes of the Koran.  When their unwavering efforts are not met with their expected success, it turns out their “failures” are actually vehicles for a better life. Viewers are able to examine Saudi Arabia’s complex and heart breaking social issues through a unique spectacle: the eyes of an untarnished, honest school girl.”
—Ashley Lam (12th grade)

“Ms. Mansour gives us a rare look from a woman’s point of view into her own culture, one that is slowly adopting greater and greater rights for women, and also helps to dispel some of the mass-media-influenced myths surrounding Islamic culture in the Middle East.  For example, many may believe that women in Saudi Arabia only wear their veils, but Wadjda reveals that this is not entirely true – women often wear elaborate, even Western clothing underneath their veils, and only wear them in public. Similarly, another common misconception is that women are denied education in the Middle East and other Islamic nations. However, Wadjda’s school is a major setting in the film, showing that this is not true.”
—Abizer Lokhandwala (11th grade)

Wadjda is a film that is passively enticing. It captures viewers’ attention without action scenes, while simultaneously being a thoughtful commentary on Saudi Arabian society.  It’s a film about the little things synergistically becoming greater than the whole.”
—Alhad Deshpande (12th grade)

“The film is advocating gender equality by engendering sympathy for Saudi Arabian women, yet it is not confrontational and aggressive. Naturalism presents the storyline candidly, leaving any interpretation up to the audience. A simple yet powerful movie, Wadjda tells us that change is possible under the sun.”
—Brittany Lau (12th grade)

“[Wadjda] was shot without extravagant cinematographic effects and seems plain…The minimalism in the technical aspects of the movie exhibit its intricate meaning of liberation.”
—Harmani Sethi (11th grade)

“There is no doubt that the film comments on the changing role of women in Saudi Arabia…At the same time, the film identifies other social factors that affect the lives of Wadjda and her family…Through side conversations and passing images, the film alludes to the tribal structure of family and politics in Saudi Arabia, the weight of the Palestinian crisis in the region, the continued conflict between radicalism and modernization.”
—Benjamin Rosete-Estrada (12th grade)

“Ms. Mansour uses both camera angles and positioning of the actors, as well as plenty of scenarios to remind the audience that the men are above the women. One aspect that I enjoyed about the film was that there was not a significant amount of artificial lighting, especially in outdoor scenes. This kept exaggeration to a minimum and left the film looking more natural.”
—Jessamyn Fathi (11th grade)

“The true beauty of Wadjda is the manner in which it provides a multi-dimensional commentary on life in Saudi Arabia, most notably, through an absolutely simplistic cinematography. Despite delving into such heavy topics as gender equality and politics, it is surprising that elements such as a monotone color scheme and wide-angle shots serve only to enhance the viewing experience.”
—Rohit Vinjamuri (12th grade)

“Tradition and change; boy and girl; head scarf and flowing hair; the film juxtaposes the moving times with the lack of activity in Saudi Arabia. Yet, with simple touches of modernity and every day struggles—such as the seemingly random additions of GroupLove’s “Tongue-Tied” and Chuck Taylors–Al-Monsour is able to speak optimistically, positively of an issue we often view clouded with political and social webs.”
—Jamie Lam (12th grade)