With over 200 films having screened at the 56th London Film Festival in October, it’s nearly impossible to say with genuine certainty what films presented were truly the cream of the entire crop. Yet, by metaphorically placing an ear to the ground (or reading Twitter, perhaps) a picture begins to form of what underwhelmed and what delighted or surprised.
Falling firmly into the latter category is Haifaa Al-Mansour’s debut feature film, Wadjda, which earned a “special mention” at the London Film Festival’s awards ceremony. Its two sold-out festival screenings helped earn UK distribution for the charming, yet remarkably brave tale of a fierce, young Saudi girl who rejects society’s expectations of her. Written and directed by Saudi Arabia’s first female director, there’s no denying how feminist a work Wadjda is. That such a film should be produced within the strict Islamist kingdom to begin with is no mean feat and is, therefore, praiseworthy for that alone, regardless of the final product.
However, Wadjda has more to offer than an inspiring genesis; it’s a truly heart-warming and immensely enjoyable film that offers a subversive, yet respectful portrait of life within a society vastly different from that which its Western audiences will have experienced. Mansour’s film focuses on the eponymous 10-year-old rebel (Waad Mohammed) who wants little more than to simply be herself within a culture that appears to frown upon female individuality. At the centre of her desires is that to own a bicycle so she can race with her friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), a young boy as taken with Wadjda as viewers will be.
Meanwhile, Wadjda’s parents struggle through a rough patch, as her father (Sultan Al Assaf) is pressured to take on a wife capable of bearing him a son. Yes, Wadjda is at times an infuriating experience for a Westerner with even the mildest of progressive views, but this is very much part of the point. Still, it would be a mistake to see Wadjda as a film that seeks sympathy. From Wadjda’s tenacity and spirit to her mother’s (Reem Abdullah) dignified resilience to the fact Mansour has made this very film in Saudia Arabia, Wadjda represents, not only dissatisfaction, but also a steely resolve to forge a path to equality from within.
Mansour’s brilliantly balanced script offers Mohammed’s spunky Wadjda as the embodiment of hope for a fairer Saudi Arabia. At school, at home and in her free time, Wadjda comes up against the restrictions faced by females under the strict adherence to Sharia law. In her attempts to obtain the coveted bicycle, Wadjda quickly learns that she must channel her patience, intelligence and heart in order to achieve a goal those around her scoff at. If this is a metaphor for the daily struggles faced by women in Saudi Arabia (and speaking of metaphors, pay attention to exactly how Wadjda aims to pay for her bicycle), then Mansour and Mohammed have done them proud here. Despite her sassy exterior, Mohammed’s Wadjda is instantly likable and, indeed, admirable for her feisty attitude.
Undoubtedly, Mansour knew that much of Wadjda’s success would be tied to its young lead and with Mohammed the ground-breaking director has struck gold. The film’s bittersweet close manages to be far more satisfying than any tidy happy ending could have been.
It’s a rare occasion to be able to refer to anyone as a pioneer in the 21st century, especially when it comes to filmmaking; but there’s no denying Haifaa Al-Mansour that status. With her tremendous first feature effort, Wadjda, Mansour has not only shown that women can make a film in Saudi Arabia, but that they can do so incredibly well. Mansour’s story of a young girl fighting for her sense of self and independence in Saudi Arabia is an absolute joy to behold and serves well to symbolise an important struggle occurring within the culture. While both honestly acknowledging present conditions and casting an optimistic gaze to the road ahead, Wadjda is both an inspiration and simply unmissable.
Wadjda is released 19 April 2013