The first film to be shot entirely on location in Saudi Arabia and released for the attention of international audiences tells the story of a young girl (played by non-professional actor, Waad Mohammed) and her determination to race a bicycle through the stiflingly patriarchal landscape of Riyadh. Haifaa al-Mansour’s Wadjda premiered at the 2014 Venice Film Festival to critical praise, receiving multiple awards for best film and director.
Upon closer consideration, however, the disparity between the socio-cultural and historical cruciality of al-Mansour’s debut fictional feature, and the international, critical recognition it garnered is substantial. While uncontestedly celebrated across international film markets, audiences and critical spheres, the magnificence of Wadjda remains at best, taken for granted, and at worst, woefully underappreciated. This was never more apparent than when the film was denied the prestige of both an Academy Award nomination (Saudi Arabia’s first entry into the Oscars) and a BAFTA. That a film about a young girl protesting systematic oppression through the succinctly metaphorical dream of riding a bicycle was the first to be recognised as a product of (an emerging) Saudi Arabian national cinema, is exceptional. That the film was created by an Arab woman hailed as the first, Saudi female filmmaker, is monumental.Through Wadjda, al-Mansour unflinchingly exposes the hypocrisy of a Saudi society that at once acknowledged the film as ‘an authentic representation of our country and culture’ (Sultan Al Bazie, president of the Saudi Society for Culture and Arts, 2013), while simultaneously comprising the same patriarchal system that persistently undermined film production. Indeed, because of difficulties in establishing financial backing, as well as on-location filming in a region where ‘public displays of art are vilified, women are marginalized, gender segregation is strictly enforced’ and where there was no national film industry - or narrative - with which to refer, Wadjda took five years to reach completion (“Anatomy: The Making of Wadjda”, Haifaa al-Mansour).
Given the historical feats that have emerged since the film’s release, it is crucial that the socio-political prescience of Wadjda is realised more extensively and its potential role as film canon, taken seriously. Al-Mansour’s critical subtext concerning the relentless, global campaign for women’s rights is all the more powerful considering the slow-changing status of Saudi women within the last few years. In December 2015, a (relatively small) proportion of women first exercised their right to vote in municipal Saudi elections, and just this month, issued driving licenses for the very first time. These small victories are, however, still subject to the restrictive policies of a patriarchal, authoritarian establishment. This is a fact that al-Mansour never shies away from throughout the film: by the rolling credits, the audience is left with a sense of stoic hope- a taste of optimism coated in a bittersweet knowingness that there is a long, tumultuous way ahead yet. Of course, this is by no means exclusive to the futures of women throughout Saudi Arabia, the Middle East or indeed, the Arab world: while the film intricately explores the systematic oppression of women, it also draws unsettling comparisons with the treatment of women globally, through frequent references to Western cultures.
The opening shot of the film shows a low-angle, close-up of a pair of feet dressed in white socks and plain, dust-encrusted black pumps; they sway amongst a uniformed sea of school shoes, while an off-tone orchestra of girls’ voices can be heard singing verses of the Qur’an. “Stop!” the teacher shouts, before ordering the cluster of schoolgirls to stand in-line, “let’s try it again”. As the girls start up once more, the camera focuses on Wadjda as she turns to wave at a pair of passing schoolmates. “Wadjda! Come here,” the teacher orders; there is a cut to the original shot of the girls’ feet as they step aside in unison to reveal the protagonist’s (symbolically Western) Chuck Taylor Converse trainers at the centre of the shot. It serves as an unflinching revelation of Saudi Arabia’s first, cinematic protagonist: an energetically defiant young girl. At once, Wadjda is both separated from her female peers as an embodiment of conflicting- yet merging- identities, and yet inextricably tied to the next generation of Saudi women, as a vital component of their collective presence: a burgeoning, all-woman coup d’etat, against the entrenched, patriarchal establishment, perhaps. In the following sequence, the audience is immersed within the rebellious realms of Wadjda’s bedroom: the walls are plastered with pictures of women behind steering wheels of cars- an allusion towards her own determination to ride a bicycle alongside her (male) peers, as well as the fact that, at this time, it was illegal for women to drive. The camera pans across the painted brick wall to reveal the word ‘Katir’ (dangerous), scribbled in Arabic. It is a liberating lair for the young girl: a subcultural space of resistance, where she is temporarily untethered from from the patriarchal policing of her body and beliefs. The aesthetic coding of Wadjda’s style here presents a conscious amalgamation of West Asian cultural heritage and Euro-Western influence- a nod to intersectional, female solidarity across borders. This is especially prevalent given the composition of the film’s most popular promotional image (used throughout the West, in particular), which shows Wadjda, dressed in a grey abaya, sitting down to tie the bright purple shoelaces of her high-top Converse, with her denim jeans poking out from beneath her conservative, school uniform.
In this light, that the film is so internationally relevant, universally recognisable, and essential to intersectional feminist discourse, makes its omission from the 86th Academy Awards Best Foreign Language Film nominations particularly telling. Wadjda was the first film ever to be selected as the Saudi Arabian entry to the Oscars, yet not even afforded a nomination. Likewise, while nominated for a BAFTA Award for Best Film Not in the English Language, al-Mansour’s seminal work lost out to Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (also winning the academy award). As such, to the meticulous extent that Wadjda details the plight of women in Saudi, it also uncovers the institutional sexism that is symptomatic of a deep-rooted patriarchy within the West (particularly within far-reaching film industries). The exhausting disregard of indispensable work created by, and about women - specifically women of colour - in favour of monotonous, white, male narratives is an all too familiar pattern that repeatedly attempts to silence the voices and stories of women. This of course resonates with the recent exposure of institutionalised abuse against women throughout Hollywood and beyond- itself a manifestation of patriarchal privilege and the persistent silencing of women that ensues. In retrospect, we can align the poignant cinematic power of al-Mansour’s Wadjda with the courageous, responses of women across the globe, challenging systematic misogyny with collective fury.
Words by Laura Nicholson
This essay was initially published as part of the Her Name is . . . season at Genesis Cinema on 19/06/18