Her heart’s desire is to own and ride
directed by Haifaa Al Mansour
97mins, rated PG, opens 20 March
review by Michèle Asprey
(This is my review as published in
the March 2014 issue of The NSW Law Society Journal)
In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, cinemas are banned. Wadjda is the first feature film
shot entirely on location there – and its director is a woman. She is
Haifaa Al Mansour, a graduate of the University of Sydney, where she
earned her Masters in Film Studies.
As a woman in Saudi Arabia, Al Mansour is not allowed to work with men
in public. When she was shooting the film on location, she had to
remain in a van, communicating with her all-male crew by walkie-talkie
and watching the action on monitors. She found this frustrating, and
emerged from the van whenever possible, encountering a variety of
receptions, from warm to hostile.
This film, with all its flaws, is a little gem, made under incredibly
difficult circumstances. It’s a small story, and it might be overly
optimistic, but it achieves what it sets out to do with some grace and
a lot of fun. Its wonderful young star, Waad Mohammed, gives an
energetic and charismatic performance, always with a twinkle in her eye.
The director, speaking at last year’s Sydney Film Festival, told us
that she found her young star just one week before the film shoot
began. Waad is one of those children who perform at Saudi folk
festivals. She doesn’t speak English and her parents are very
traditional, but they allowed her to sing and dance, and to make this
wonderful little film, thus helping to make Saudi history.
Wadjda is the name of the film’s young heroine, a feisty girl of 10,
who lives in a suburb of Riyadh. She wears fashionable sneakers under
her long black robe and headscarf and listens to western music. She
plays with (and is tormented by) a young boy, Abdullah. This is of
course forbidden. Her heart’s desire is to own and ride a bike – also
frowned upon for girls in Saudi – so she can race and catch Abdullah.
Wadjda is enterprising, hatching several schemes to make her dream come
true. She encounters various obstacles that limit or restrict females,
many of which would be intolerable to modern western women. She deals
with each obstacle, showing great persistence. As her mother says to
Wadjda, “If you put your mind to something, nothing can stop you”.
Wadjda’s mother (played by Reem Abdullah) is a beautiful and
intelligent teacher. She also encounters obstacles. When she clashes
with her driver, he refuses to continue driving her, so she simply
can’t work. Her husband is loving towards her and their daughter, but
her mother-in-law is white-anting their relationship. She wants her son
to take a second wife so he can have a son, because Wadjda’s mother
(known only as “Mother”) is apparently unable to bear another child.
There is a particularly poignant scene when Wadjda sees a family tree
that her father has put up in the living room. There are no women’s
names on the tree. Wadjda puts up her own name, fixing it with a bobby
pin. Her father’s reaction is drastic.
My main criticism of the film is that it tries to have it both ways,
showing the bad, but always tempering it with good, even when the bad
is intolerable. Still, Wadjda
has the most satisfying and hopeful ending I’ve seen in a film in a
while – and I want to believe it can come true.
Haifaa Al Mansour told the Sydney Film Festival that the only way to
see this film in Saudi Arabia is if it were shown on TV, or if you
could watch it on DVD. There were a few private screenings in Saudi
when the film was first completed. There, said Al Mansour, the young
people “got it”.
Al Mansour is optimistic for the future. There are now 30 female
politicians in Saudi, she said, and she wants to go back to Saudi to
make a film about young people. It seems the last words of the film,
from Wadjda to Abdullah, apply equally to this pioneering young
director: “Catch me if you can!”