Subtlety in Female Gaze: Wadjda

in 9th Eurasia International Film Festival

by Manoj Barpujari

Usually, international film festival guests throw praises around of how mesmerized by the hospitality, kindness and generosity of the organizers they are; yet these are inseparable virtues of such an event, which should not remain unnoticed. The real triumph of any festival is the all too vast human canvas laid open on screen, revealing artists’ endeavours to grasp and analyze the life of the country they belong to, synonymous with artistic upturn, social uplift and philosophical attainment. The package at Almaty offered a splendid plate of varied choices — from a war-time Georgian social drama (In Bloom) to a Kafkaesque tale from a remote Russian peninsula (Shame) and an Iranian unique tragedy in disguise (Do Not Worry Sara); from an Italian ultra-modern mystery (Honey) to a Saudi Arabia’s first-ever narrative feature to hit international screens (Wadjda) and to a French-Belgian co-production of a burlesque human story (Henri) — just to mention a few of the films presented, each sporting an unmistakable identity and character.

It was Wadjda (2012), directed by Haifaa Al Mansour that ultimately won our hearts for its illuminating portrayal of life in a hidden world through layers of meaning, revealing the essence of cinema and life. Obviously there are two sides to the story: one is to be read in viewing and reviewing the film; and the other is to understand the difficulties of filming in a censorious situation and in a country, where there are no movie theatres or movie-making tradition, and where women are the least privileged section of society. Prejudices and biases towards the women in Saudi Arabia make it a tougher proposition for visual media personalities. It’s like inviting trouble. Even now women aren’t legally allowed to roam freely without bourqa and a head-scarf, they’re denied political power, they’ve no working rights in some professions, are not allowed to vote and drive car, and even riding a bicycle is prohibited. So the shooting of the outdoors scenes by a woman filmmaker in Saudi Arabia is already becoming a part of the film-making folklore since the writer-director had to work clandestinely, from inside a van, communicating with cast and crew via walkie-talkie, lest strangers be offended by the sight of her giving directions to her male unit members.

Hailed as the first female filmmaker of the country, Al Mansour had the distinction of ruffling Saudi feathers with her 2005 documentary Women Without Shadows— encouraging discussion on topics generally considered taboo in that country, such as tolerance, women rights and religious orthodoxy. However, the release of Wadjda also marks positive changes in the country; at least there are no signs of government resentment over the film’s accolades in the West, which Asghar Farhadi had to face in Iran because of his well-acclaimed A Separation. Rather, Wadjda is hailed as an authentic representation of the country and its culture, despite the fact that it painted the Kingdom as an oppressive set-up. The Saudi women are set to get voting power in 2015; and ahead of that the government has selected the film as the country’s official nomination for the 2014 Oscars in the best foreign film category. This is the first time ever this nation has selected a film to compete for the Academy awards. These are reassuring changes in a restrictive society, where movie theatres were banned three decades ago.

On this backdrop, the film’s finale could not be more fitting: the central character, Wadjda, a 10-year old girl, rides her bicycle up to the point where the quiet street she lives on reaches the motorway. With a curious gaze she looks ahead as if gauging the broad highway— the road being a well-used metaphor of the future – and her bicycle becomes a symbolic vehicle to freedom. Here one is tempted to summon images of a certain Italian neo-realist classic. Al Monsour was once heard declaring avowedly her indebtedness to Vittorio de Sica. But whether her film stimulates drawing such kind of similarities with Bicycle Thieves, or with some West Asian ambiance films like Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s The Cyclist, is difficult to say as Monsour’s film has little in common with these movies other than the pristine beauty of simple storytelling and stunning humanism.

In her meditative style, Al Monsour employs wide angles and long takes for street scenes, perhaps by calling the shots from inside of a car, while keeping the decoupage tight during the confrontational indoor sequences. It is quite understandable and visually balanced; in a stubborn patriarchal and totalitarian society Wadjda’s mother had to observe the goings-on in her neighbourhood from a distance, from the terrace of her home; not only that, she had to prepare food for male guests but never to appear before them to serve it. Wadjda is a loud preteen who parades in her room to American pop songs. She clashes with her school’s stern headmistress and sneaks play-dates with a boy of her age, even drawing a rebuke from her mother for bringing him in when there is no one at home. But all she wants to do is to learn how to ride a bike from the boy next door, Abdullah. Her mother gets fearful of the consequences this may invite, warning her she might be declared unfit to be a wife and a mother in a society, which doesn’t favour girls riding bikes. Unafraid of such warnings, Wadjda wants to race with Abdullah, and enters a Qur’an recitation competition at her school in the hope of buying a bike with the prize money. Ultimately she wins the prize, but is denied the money— instead, the headmistress announces that the money will be sent to their Palestinian brethren.

Thus the innocent young girl is placed at bitter odds with a rigidly defined interpretation of a sacred text and she is also troubled by the impending separation of her parents. Her mostly absentee father does find the time to play with computer gadgets during his rare visits to Wadjda. The gadgets in her father’s hands signify his hypocritical and formal attitude to wife and daughter. The husk of the plot is a conventional family drama, but therein lies its true subversiveness. The Palestinian cause both adds fuel to the dialogue and political undertones to the narrative. When Wadjda is asked about the prize money, she promptly snaps: “In Palestine!” Sharply photographed by Lutz Reitemeier, this beguiling German-Saudi co-production flaunts a richly ambiguous sub-plot in the guise of a naive premise about a kid trying to buy her dream bicycle.

The bike enters the heroine’s field of vision when, attached to the bed of an obscured truck, it appears to fly through the drab, sandy, walled street in a Riyadh suburb. Her joy knows no bounds when her mother buys the cherished bike with the savings she has put away for an expensive red gown meant to win her hubby over and convince him not to take a second wife. Earlier we have seen her venting her anger on him, yelling: “Go to your mother and discuss potential brides!”, which amounts to a protest by a deeply hurt, suffering woman. She is educated, attractive, respectful and a teacher by profession, and yet unable to get love and affection from her hubby, because like any male chauvinist, he treats her with disdain for failing to bear him a son. Sensing that her husband would inevitably opt for a second bride, she surrenders to fate and realizes that her only solace lies in raising her daughter with all the care she needs. The two carve out a relationship that feels authentic both in conflict and bonding. Thus Wadjda becomes a contemplation about the drama of modern Saudi women, torn between conformity to collective traditions and radical awareness of their individuality. The bike is thus the right symbol of this change of attitudes in two different generations, represented by the mother-daughter duo.

Inadvertently becoming one of the notable films of recent times, Wadjda is a window into the bitter-sweet conflict between fundamentalist beliefs and modern superstitions, between tradition and desire to transform the rigid code of ethics. A conflict, endemic for this part of the world, and affecting Iranian women in Jafar Panahi’s The Circle as well as Afghan women in Samira Makhmalbaf’s At Five in the Afternoon. What better testimony to the irrationality of conservatism than the arranged marriage of a 10-year-old girl for a 20-year-old boy; and that’s what happens to a classmate of Wadjda!

The discussion so far may without a doubt point to a feminist ploy, and thus raise a moot question: are the characters and situations in the film manipulative? To the sheer delight of the film-goer, the film rebuffs such speculations with its feel of honesty on narrative level, including the tense build-
up leading up to the Qur’an competition. The girl’s efforts in her bid to collect cash for the bike — at first by making bracelets and selling them to classmates, and even by striking a deal to deliver love-letters for grown ups — are both touching and funny. The girl, who secretly paints her toenails and wears tennis shoes to school much to the disdain of her principal, is a pure smack at the gender politics of the land. The school-girls are constantly reminded to keep silence even within the confines of the classroom, so much so that the irritated headmistress once says: “A woman’s voice is her nakedness.”

It’s a man’s world; so only the boys can keep on yelling at each other at will whereas girls are forbidden even to laugh in public. And when – before a large audience, including the incredulous headmistress – Wadjda spells out her intention to buy a bike after winning the competition, her statement resounds as a blasphemy. Without hectoring, the film makes numerous points about the status of women of all ages in Saudi Arabia,— a chauffeur, insulting gratuitously Wadjda’s mom, is just another pointer in this regard.

In an unexpected plot twist, Wadjda and her pal Abdullah attempt to settle the score with the chauffeur, which throws in high relief not only the relations between adults and children but also the clash of generational value systems. In a bid to win the heart of the owner of a local bike-shop, Wadjda presents him with a mix-tape of forbidden music she makes herself. Whether this stands out as another hint at the need of bridging the West-Asian cultural divide is a point to ponder over. During the 97 minutes of this authentic saga of veiled protests, the director extracts wonderful performances both from debutantes as Waad Mohammed (Wadjda) and from experienced actors like Reem Abdullah (her mother) and Hussa Ahd (the headmistress).

Wadjda also defies the stereotypes associated with woman-centred cinema; here the female characters are not simply the “bearers of meaning” but “makers of meaning” actively countering the patriarchal order of society, something that goes against the grain of Laura Mulvey’s foundational essay in feminist film theory on visual pleasures and narrative cinema.

In a way, with her debut feature, Haifaa Al Mansour breaks many barriers, yet circumvents many others, leaving them unchallenged. But therein lies the cinema’s role in our lives: its semiotics reveals much more than, as Umberto Eco once observed, other media could even aspire to.

Edited by Christina Stojanova