“Wadjda” won’t disappoint

One of the things I love about seeing foreign films is that they open my eyes to other cultures in other parts of the world. “Wadjda” is the first feature film shot entirely within the country of Saudi Arabia. Now, what do I know about Saudi Arabia? My impression is a socially and economically backward country in which power and wealth are concentrated in the hands of a very few – even more so than in the United States. After seeing “Wadjda,” I’m not so sure I can call Saudi Arabia socially and economically backward anymore.

“Wadjda” is the name of the lead character, a spunky 11-year-old girl living in the capital city of Riyadh. She is the only child of her mother, a kind, working-class woman, and her frequently-absent father, who is considering taking a second wife – a common practice in Saudi Arabia. Wadjda wants to earn enough money to buy a bicycle so she can race against Abdullah, a neighborhood boy, and son of a prominent political figure. Wadjda attends an all-girls school with a strict principal, who clashes with Wadjda over her lack of adherence to Saudi social mores. Wadjda can’t understand why girls aren’t supposed to ride bikes. She can’t understand why women must cover their faces in public. Eventually, and with a huge dose of irony, Wadjda seizes upon the best route to earn the money she needs. She enters a school-sponsored contest which awards the girl who best excels at memorizing passages from the Koran.

While this must sound like a simplistic, almost childish, plot, I’ve found that other cultures are often best displayed through the eyes of children rather than through adults. Think about what we know of the pre-civil-rights South, for example. How much of our visual image of this world was shaped by reading about it through the eyes and ears of Atticus Finch’s children in Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” – rather than through the eyes and ears of Atticus himself? The same is true of “Wadjda.” We’re introduced to perhaps the most male-dominated society in the world through a girl, her friends, and her classmates – none of whom fully understands why women must be subservient, other than that’s the way things have always been. As Wadjda studies the Koran, I didn’t hear her recite a single verse denouncing women, yet that is the world into which she has been born.

“Wadjda” is an eye-opener into a culture which is obviously different from ours, although not quite as different as we might imagine, with just enough story to hold our interest for over ninety minutes. You won’t look at your watch once during this minor miracle of a movie. As is the unfortunate case living in central Indiana, I won’t have a chance to see all the Best Foreign Film nominees before the Oscars, but I can’t imagine I’ll see a better one. Saudi Arabia has never had an entry before, and this should be the one that brings home the gold, as it were. Female director Haifaa al-Mansour has introduced us to Saudi culture, and we should award her accordingly.

As a student of film history, I should point out the somewhat obvious correlation here between “Wadjda” and Vittorio de Sica’s 1949 classic, “The Bicycle Thief.” I don’t know if al-Mansour is even aware of the plot similarities, but consider that in “The Bicycle Thief,” the protagonist spends the entire picture looking for his stolen bike, whereas in “Wadjda,” the protagonist spends her efforts attempting to purchase a bike she doesn’t own. In a way, post-war Italy and modern-day Saudi Arabia are each represented on film through simple bicycles – Italians’ desire to regain the lifestyle they once knew vs. Saudis’ desire to share in a lifestyle they’ve never known.

Do yourself a favor and seek out “Wadjda.” If it’s no longer showing by the time of the publication of this review, it should return during Oscar season. This one’s a winner and is appropriate for anyone in middle school or older.