Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Wadjda is the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, and the first one directed by a female Saudi. While that certainly merits a bit of curiosity, the question for me becomes, if it were, say, the second film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, or the second film directed by a Saudi woman, would anyone care? My hunch is no, which isn’t to say Wadjda is a bad film, but rather one so slight and waifish that it barely exists.
Al-Mansour has many thoughts on the lives of women living inside Saudi Arabia’s oppressive culture — ideas that often feel muddled and rarely carry any weight, either socially or dramatically. She focuses mainly on Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), a young girl who doesn’t fit in with the constrained society of Saudi Arabia. She listens to pirate radio stations playing Western pop music and wears Chuck Taylors despite her school’s conservative dress code. Mostly, she’s motivated by the unmovable desire to own a bicycle — something that’s frowned-upon for girls. To afford it, she hustles by any means necessary, selling bracelets and mixtapes to girls at school, and finally deciding to enter a Koran recitation contest to win money. This last part is particularly surprising, considering Wadjda’s rebellious nature.
Given the setup of this contest within the plot, Wadjda goes exactly (apart from one very, very small twist) where you expect it to. On the periphery are small stories and touches meant to examine the role of women in Saudi Arabia, from Wadjda’s mother (Reem Abdullah) fearing Wadjda’s father (Sultan Al Assaf) will take on a new wife, to the hypocrisy of Wadjda’s religiously overbearing teacher (Ahd) supposedly harboring a secret lover. Much of it — like one of Wadjda’s young classmates getting married — is meant to be jarring. It isn’t as shocking as it would like to be, unfortunately, since the film itself is so slight that any dramatic weight the plot might carry soon dissipates. Al-Mansour has made a pleasant crowd-pleaser, but she also lacks any real style, shooting everything in a wholly utilitarian manner, all while stretching the film’s story out as thin as possible (at 98 minutes, the film feels 20 minutes too long). Not a whole lot happens in Wadjda, and when it does, it verges a bit too close to simple melodrama, while still feeling dramatically inert.
While Al-Mansour highlights many issues surrounding female life in Saudi Arabia, that’s all that’s there. While I don’t exactly expect solutions to the issues, the film is so small and quaint that there’s no power in the filmmaking, just quiet family drama that comes across as pat, considering the issues being raised. There’s a total lack of emotion here — no anger or sadness, and the only desire seems to come from a girl who wants a bicycle. Yes, Wadjda is a pleasant, pleasing, easy movie, but that’s about all it has going for it. Rated PG for thematic elements, brief mild language and smoking.
Playing at Fine Arts Theatre