Wadjda (Al-Mansour, 2012) was the first to be made entirely in Saudi Arabia (Roxborough, 2012). Not only that, but it’s directed by a woman and is centred on a 10 year old Saudi girl’s rebellion against her country’s extreme patriarchal culture, the eponymous Wadjda.
Wadjda is Al-Masour’s first feature film, but she’s previously directed shorts and documentaries, all of which were aimed at ”giving a platform to Saudi woman to tell their unheard stories (Roxborough, 2012)”. She doesn’t stray far from that directive here; Wadjda exists in the restrictive and often hidden world that Saudi Arabia expects their women to inhabit. And it’s truly shocking. Even though I’ve objectively known the restrictions placed on Saudi women by their culture, to be confronted by them in such a subjective experience affected me very deeply, more so than I was expecting. It’s a true example of the power of film (especially fictional film) to incite emotion.
Part of Wadjda’s power comes from it’s refusal to exaggerate the oppression of its female characters; it’s a story first and foremost, the environment is simply is what it is. Al-Masour speaks of this decision to focus on the story rather than explicitly publicise the politics:
The original draft of her screenplay was much bleaker than her finished film turned out to be. “The theme which remained was this girl who refuses to give up and tries to raise herself above the circumstances of her life,” she says. “I decided I didn’t want the film to carry a slogan and scream but just to create a story where people can laugh and cry a little.” (Grey, 2013)
But for me this focus on story made the politics even more powerful, because the horror comes from the realisation that this way of living is so normal as to be unremarkable. The audience experiences this oppression as ever present background noise, mirroring the experience of Saudi women for whom it’s inescapably part of their life. And Al-Masour herself is not immune to such rules and restrictions; filming in her homeland meant that she was unable to work directly with most of her (male) crew:
“I could only go outside with my film crew when we had permission, so it was difficult,” she says. She frequently had to rely on walkie-talkies and watching scenes unfold on a monitor to direct her actors. “It made me realise the need to rehearse and to develop an understanding for each scene before we shot it.” (Grey, 2013)
Al-Masour’s lifetime of experience in the challenges faced by her female characters enables her to present a portrait of Saudi culture in an almost matter of fact way. Her refusal to explicitly politicise her film is a powerful tool for drawing the audience into her story, because to preach, however unintentional, always runs the risk of pushing viewers away. Wadjda avoids this and in doing so creates a more powerful connection with its audience through empathy and embodiment.
Al-Masour is particularly adept at subtle characterisation and hidden exposition. She finds simple ways to convey her characters personality, like Wadjda’s prohibited converse shoes; her enterprising business of making and then selling bracelets to her classmates; her coat hanger extended radio and obsession with making mix tapes… All are unobtrusive but draw a detailed portrait of Al-Masour’s protagonist.
And Al-Masour treats her plot with similar subtlety. Wadjda’s parents seem to be experiencing a breakdown in their marriage, yet it remains unclear for most of the film why. Eventually we see her parents arguing, her father spitting out at her mother to “bear me a son. But we all know that’s not going to happen. (Al-Masour, 2012)”. This lack of a male heir appears to be the crux of their division, yet we still don’t know why they are so adamant that they will never have a son. It’s not until nearly the end of the film in an exchange between Wadjda and her mother that it’s revealed that Wadjda’s birth was so problematic that her mother is unable have more children. And the film’s ending, in which Wadjda’s father takes a second wife who might be able to provide this coveted male heir (despite the heartbreak of Wadjda’s mother), is all the more powerful for what Al-Masour doesn’t explicitly point out – the mother’s newly cut hair.
Wadjda’s mother is a significant character in Al-Masour’s story, a mirror to her daughter, as bound by Saudi convention as much as her daughter rejects it. And her journey from dutiful housewife, whose primary consideration in every aspect of her life is her husband, to a woman who facilitates her daughter’s rebellion, is as much the heart of the film as Wadjda’s story. Her trials as a married Saudi women, dependent on an unreliable driver, unable to take a better job because she would have to interact with men, and unable to stop her husband taking another wife, are an unsettling reminder of the prejudice facing Wadjda. The mother’s fear for her firebrand daughter becomes the audience’s fear, as we understand the divergence between what society expects of Wadjda and what she wants to be.
The final moments of the film are emotionally devastating, because we have come to feel as Wadjda’s mother, just as much as we embody Wadjda herself. And the mother’s fledgling steps in rejecting patriarchal oppression are just as satisfying as Wadjda’s eventual success in freeing herself (at least partly) of social convention.
Yet Al-Masour’s complex characterisation isn’t limited to her female characters; she refuses to paint the men in her story as pantomime villains. here too she reaches for subtlety, rather than overt proselytization. Wadjda’s father is a kind man who loves his family. Yet the misogyny of the Saudi male appears in the way in which he feels that he has no choice but to take a second wife, despite his obvious sadness at hurting Wadjda and her mother, because his first wife’s medical problems make her incapable of bearing him a son. This invasive patriarchy also appears in the family tree which Wadjda finds in her lounge, listing only male heirs. Wadjda stubbornly pins her name to it, making herself known as an equal to any son her father might have; yet later she finds the scrap of paper bearing her name torn from the tree and tossed indelicately aside.
Wadjda’s refusal to villainise its male characters reminds me very much of Offside (Panahi, 2006) which Al-Mansour references as an influence on her work (Grey, 2013). Both films question the complicity of women in their own oppression. It appears in Wadjda through the exasperation with which Wadjda’s mother sometimes treats her daughter, and more overtly in the harsh rule of Wadjda’s headmistress. Al-Mansour makes it clear that this was a conscious choice:
“It was very important for me to show that even women reinforce traditional values and that it is not only men,” she says. “The usual refrain is that the men are always the oppressors and the women are always victims but the situation is more complex than that.” (Grey, 2013)
This complexity is beautifully rendered in Wadjda. It’s a perfect example of the power that a comparatively simple story has to hold a mirror up to us and ask if we’re happy with what we see.
Al-Mansour, H., (2012), Wadjda, Razor Film Produktion GmbH
Grey, T., (2013), Undercover director: Saudi film-maker Haifaa al-Mansour [online], London: Financial Times, Available from: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/b7590234-8289-11e2-8404-00144feabdc0.html#axzz3FCDbb7vS [Accessed on 26 June 2016]
Panahi, J., (2006) Offside, Jafar Panahi Film Productions
Roxborough, S., (2012), Cannes 2012: Saudi Arabia’s First Female Director Brings ‘Wadjda’ to Fest [online], Los Angeles: The Hollywood Reporter, Available from: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/saudi-arabia-wadjda-cannes-324596?utm_source=SilverpopMailing&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Compose%20-%20breaking_news_intl%20(1)%20(30)%20(1)&utm_content= [Accessed on 26 June 2016]