On Wadjda, the first film directed by a Saudi Arabian woman and the nation’s official nomination for the 2014 Academy Awards.
At the end of the Saudi Arabian film Wadjda — also the name of its 10- year-old heroine, a heart-winningly charming Waad Mohammad — she rides her bicycle into the sunset. Unlike Clint Eastwood-style Westerns, she saunters past a vacant construction lot where young boys play football. They stare at her and the bicycle, in shock and amazement. In this industrial gloom — with buildings awash in the batter of desert dust, surrounded by forgotten mounds of gravel, bathed in the after-effects of a fierce yellowing sun — the breeziness of her bicycle is an anomaly. The sullen lethargy of the boys is a contrast to her lightness. The ease with which Wadjda (pronounced Wazh-deh) goes about startles us. Yet, her freewheeling spirit is not an excess. Her litheness doesn’t emerge from soft-living or a plush material life that is de rigueur when we think of Saudi Arabian bourgeoisie. Instead, her movement and mobility are hard won.
Her freedom, as the audience recognises, is a wolf whistle to Paul Valery’s words that caution: “One should be light like a bird, and not like a feather.” Lightness must be underscored by purpose, efficiency of design and the promise of rapture. The young boys, barely eight or maybe ten, stare at her purposeful pedaling. They, like us the audience, intuit the pleasures of air streaming through her face and hair when on a cycle. Perhaps, they recognise the possibilities of physical pleasures as the wind streams into her kohl-black abaya. But, unlike them, the audience — a witness to the arc of her delicious machinations during the course of the film — recognises it is not the motion on the bicycle that grants her this freedom; that it comes from an emergent recognition that she possesses the powers, as a young Saudi Arabian girl, to transmute the heaviness of life by her actions. It isn’t alchemy, but application of intent and astuteness to negotiate life.
Before our mind exults in her freedom, the camera pans upwards and we see Wadjda cycle past a billboard of three men waving, as if in a paternalistic approval, of her cycling efforts. The oldest of them, in his pristine white thobe and an enthusiastically dyed moustache, is the 89-year old King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. It is a passing, but all too critical, genuflection to the political realities on the ground by the filmmaker. Wadjda, however, like a saint in the throes of her private revelations, doesn’t notice the King and powerful Princes. She pedals on. Faster than the boy, her long-standing companion, who has been with her throughout the film. He is both the spur to her dreams and the one to whom she glances at for approval and appreciation. Zipping down to the ends of the road, joy spreads on Wadjda’s oval face. Sunlight sprays itself on the sand dunes and those sitting in the dark of the theatre reflect in Wadjda’s small triumph. At the end of that street, which now vanishes like a prejudice that has run its course and merges onto an inter-provincial highway, she stares at the cars streaming by. Slender but furious cans of metal and technology driven by men. Only men. The filmmaker says no more, except to juxtapose the two — the young girl on the cycle and the cars on a tear. The audience leaves the theatre wondering if this 10-year-old girl on a bicycle will grow up to demand the right to drive an automobile. We suspect that she will. For now, she is content with this small victory on two wheels.
This conservative approach to change — one markedly wary of the radical, fast-moving and chaotic after effects of the struggles in Egypt, Libya or even Syria — speaks of the filmmaker’s reading of Saudi Arabia as a place that must evolve on its own accord. The filmmaker seems to be saying that, by the very act of living in that society, both men and women have arrived at historical roles, compromises and identities that are complicit in perpetuating the status quo. So all change must take the majority along with it, including in some cases the most intransigent of religious authorities. The film, without a scintilla of explicit didacticism, suggests that by Wadjda’s small act of calibrated rebellion — a woman bicycling — the goal posts have moved. And since no one seems to have protested too much, perhaps more is possible in due course. On that half-pregnant note, this eponymous film ends. The audience on the Upper West Side of Manhattan bursts into applause. My friend wipes her tears.
Wadjda is made by Haifaa al-Mansour, a Saudi Arabian director who lives in Bahrain. The story is inspiredly simple: Wadjda, a 10-year-old girl, wants to own and ride a bicycle. That is it. In a way, this one-line conceit is no different in spirit than Ziad Doueri’s West Beirut or Santosh Sivan’s Halo. But, unlike them, it is not a civil war in Lebanon or the looming metropolis of Mumbai that Wadjda must negotiate or inveigle past. Instead, she must finagle her way through something more invidious and seemingly intractable: gender norms. This makes the film all the more ambitious and difficult to execute without devolving into a tedious and earnest documentary or, on the other end, a gratuitous collection of cloying and manufactured cuteness of a child-actor. That Wadjda avoids this treacle and manages to speak to complex reality is its greatest triumph.
Into this simple premise involving a bicycle and a young girl wander in the film’s many contexts, cultures and characters. That her biography is brief is to the advantage of the filmmaker. An older character — or a movie about a Saudi woman who seeks to drive a car — might be saddled with explicit gender politics and the history of recent times. At 10, Wadjda’s world is relatively new, virginal in its wonder and unencumbered by the society into which she was born. Like us, the audience, she too is discovering Saudi Arabia. Much is alien to her. Every vignette is an opportunity for Wadjda to learn about life’s foreignness, despite being at home. She is the only child of a young couple — a darling to her father; a fellow gossip, companion and a headache to her mother. Her father is a genial but un-intellectual man, an automobile mechanic who spends his leisure time playing American video games. He is under pressure from his family to remarry so that he may sire a son that Wadjda’s mother hasn’t been able to give. Her mother is, at times, vacuous and shrewd and, at others, sensitive to her daughter’s private dreams. Together, her parents play up to our conventional ideas of polygamist husbands and their neglected wives but the filmmaker is insightful enough to rescue them from this reductionist binary. Instead, what we see are two individuals who, despite great longing and love, play half-hearted games of seduction and weariness as married couples do everywhere else in the world.
Wadjda’s constant companion, in so far as a young boy and girl can be friends before puberty in Saudi Arabia, is a young boy named Abd’allah (no points for guessing why). Young, baby-faced Abd’allah is tough minded, politically savvy to threaten irascible immigrant workers to get his way, sensitive to Wadjda’s needs, self-assured enough to support her efforts to buy a bicycle and, more movingly and thankfully a theme left unexplored, in love with her. Her nemesis is the school’s principal, who is a stand-in for the innumerable tin-pot dictators we have all met in our schooling years. Add Islamist paranoia to that persona, and you get a sense of Wadjda’s bête noire. It is a role played with great relish and flair by the actor Ahd (pronounced Ah-hed). Despite her sultry imperiousness, this school principal isn’t a caricature either. Instead, she serves as a premonitory warning to the girls in school, of the psychic disfigurement that Saudi society, like any other conservative society, is capable of forcing upon women. She suffers in silence as her illicit love affair has gone sour. From that wretchedness emerges her own efforts to enforce conservative norms of what “good” Muslim women ought to be like. She sees lesbians and immorality when there is none, she worries about the Devil slipping in between knees during prayer rituals and she isn’t above using the cause of Palestine cynically if it serves to impose her diktat. Political metaphors don’t come clearer than this. Wadjda’s only exposure to the outside world —a world beyond her city, far less Saudi Arabia — comes from nameless Western rock bands (“evil music” as her mother calls it) that she listens to, often perhaps without understanding the lyrics. Her social inferior is a curmudgeonly Pakistani driver, who suffers like other immigrants to Saudi Arabia as a second class resident. Add to this, his wounded male-pride that seethes at the fact that he chaperones demanding Saudi women. This isn’t Driving Miss Daisy, but instead a full blown skirmish along gendered-social-economic fault-lines. That he is reduced as a mere extension to the vehicle and is a pawn in the automobile politics emasculates and fuels his ire.
Wadjda’s life, especially as a pre-pubescent girl, is marked by a kind of protective freedom. She runs around the city, strolls with a boy to school and explores the outer districts of Daerah in Riyadh. She has her own piggy bank, hustles for money by making bracelets for other girls in her class. The only hint of danger we see is when a construction worker leers at her, which she coolly ignores and walks away. Her world is a cloistered yellowing city, covered by the raspy particulates from sandstorms elsewhere, filled with townhouses and tenements that withstand heat and hostile climes. She is too young to notice, even if the filmmaker does, an economic divide between the barely-stocked small shops and monumental supermarkets chock-a-block with the world’s finest brands.
This concatenation of people, place and cultural practices is rife with dramatic potential. But this landscape and the world within it has barely been explored on film. Wadjda has been frequently marketed in Western press as amongst the first film shot in Saudi Arabia. Not withstanding the fact that there have been other feature-length melodramas like Kaif al-Haal, filmmaking in Saudi Arabia is still reliant on powerful and singular patrons like Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. So together, the filmmaker and the financier chart a new course, manufacture new ways of seeing themselves. There is no film culture or even theatres to speak of in Saudi Arabia. Prince Alwaleed has been a prominent supporter of such fledgling cinematic efforts and there is a larger cultural battle in play. To The New York Times, in 2006, he said: “I want to tell Arab youth: You deserve to be entertained, you have the right to watch movies, you have the right to listen to music. There is nothing in Islam — and I’ve researched this thoroughly — not one iota that says you can’t have movies.”
The marker of films that make it to the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards is this duality. Of being able to convey local and personal strife in a language that is intuited by the Anglo-Saxon sensibility. In Wadjda, we have a film that checks all the relevant boxes. It is, at one level, a conventional story that is a tried and tested over the years. It should come as no surprise if, in the months ahead, the film turns out to be a winning successor to those films that carefully walk this line of ‘the home and the world’. From the bleak The Bicycle Thieves in 1949 to the more recent winners: the liberating farce of No Man’s Land, the penurious struggles in Tsotsi or the promise of imagination in The Sea Inside — the Academy’s choices are a duffel-bag with similar conceits. If young Indian film makers dream of winning an Academy Award — and there are many veterans who pooh-pooh its worth for various real and imagined reasons — it begins with the ability to declaim stories closest to home in a diction and emotional vocabulary that transcends the contingencies of history and idiosyncrasies of one particular society. To do so in as calculated an art form as cinema is harder than it looks. Wadjda, like its heroine, walks that razor’s edge with preternatural skill.
To the lay audience, however, what comes as a surprise is the recognition that Saudi women — behind their abaya — have an inner life; a rich one filled with intrigue, song, scandal, love and heartbreak. They aren’t a cipher, insists this film. No different than, say, Amos Gitai’s Kadosh, which imagined the lives of Orthodox Jewish women. Instead, they are evidence of how humans make do, adjust, play it up, press against and push the boundaries of societal restrictions. Many in the West, as outsiders, reduce the inner life of Arab women to their dress, and see the abaya as a sign of a forced withdrawal from the world. Yet, to others, like Sheikha Mayassa al Thani of Qatar and, for many other Arab women, the abaya is a cultural marker that is no different than a sari or a kimono. It offers both positive and negative freedoms, a sense of security coupled with sequestration. After seeing Wadjda, one can only conclude that imputing human welfare and flourishing on the basis of dress code is a mug’s game. More so, for many, the dress proffers a sense of continuity, a historical memory of their mothers and grandmothers. And in the case of Wadjda, who is at the precipice of womanhood, the transition from a headscarf to a full abaya is linked to a rite of passage. For others, like Wadjda’s mother, who wears an abaya on the outside but, in the privacy of her home, wears tight-fitting jeans that accentuate her hips and accompanying languor, the fuss about the abaya is beside the point. Academics, feminists and activists faithfully echo Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s revolutionary lines: The world is burdened by sorrows other than love. The film inverts this reasoning, and places the individual at its centre. By this inversion, the film maker makes her aesthetic choices clear. Wadjda’s mother, abandoned by her husband who is pressured into second marriage, seems to ask: “After the sorrows of love, is there a world?” Abandonment and despair isn’t a Saudi sentiment. The Kuruntokai in Tamil wrote about the poison fruits of love two millennia ago: “I woke up, still deceived, and caressed the bed thinking it my lover. It’s terrible; I grow lean in loneliness, like a water lily gnawed by a beetle”. The promise of Wadjda is its ability to speak to this layered reality. It seems to say, there is a puram (an exterior world, in Tamil poetics), but there is also an akam (an interiority). Even if shrouded in an abaya. Like humans elsewhere, faced with the possibility of romantic defeat, Wadjda’s mother walks up to the terrace, smokes a cigarette and broods.
During the course of the film, thanks to the director and editor’s astuteness, the audience ends up investing their emotional energies with Wadjda. They have seen and cheered her numerous hustles to collect money to buy a bike, have longed for her to beat the modest tyrannies of life, have laughed exasperatedly when her mother screams for Wadjda’s virginity at the mere sight of blood from a cycling accident. In hindsight, however, it is clear that, behind this positive feel-good factor, this is a film without a villain. There is no comeuppance, no melodramatic flourish to mark the denouement of a tale. Instead, there is instead a quiet victory and recognition that the freewill of characters can’t be ahistoric or acultural. This is not the nihilistic world of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver or wilful loneliness of lives in Bergman’s many films. Instead, this film speaks about a protagonist who survives and thrives by engaging further with the very society that threatens to stifle her by citing tradition and honour. In this coming together of claustrophobia and Quranic exegesis, we get a glimpse into Saudi Arabian society, particularly their women’s, that few outside have seen. My friends who came along to see the film, worried as they were for Wadjda’s fate, wanted to have nothing to do with that society. The oppressive air was too much for them to bear. And that is precisely why they cheered for Wadjda even more so. In many others, Saudi Arabia evokes sentiments that go beyond benign neglect. On her experiences of living as woman in Saudi Arabia, the Booker Prize-winner Hilary Mantel writes in an essay with barely concealed contempt: “When you come across an alien culture you must not automatically respect it. You must sometimes pay it the compliment of hating it.”
In Wadjda, one sees past the ostensibly impermeable barriers that Mantel and others report. What we find is a half-open society; one rife with Islamic superstitions, the gloss of modernity, and preoccupations with sex, fidelity and purity. All this comes while many still struggle to live a virtuous Islamic life. In this cornucopia of contradictions, we recognise many worlds closer to home. Places where orthodoxy collides and mud-wrestles with hedonism. We see, in the film, a society that is yet to get over its originary isolationist instincts or abandon its accompanying anxieties about moral pollution and corruption of values. But with Wadjda as the Virgil in this urban forest, we find a guide who makes light of many of these social restrictions and rules. In a way, she is a convenient cinematic device. Somehow we can’t but wonder, are all young girls in Saudi Arabia so free-spirited? Some, as the film shows, are married off by the age of 10 or 11. What happens to them? Others wilfully abandon the frothiness and frolic of childhood for dowdiness and misogynistic conservatism. What about the men? It is tempting to ask where Wadjda’s sense of levity comes from. But then, we must ask that of ourselves — where do any of our own emotional valences come to the fore? It is hard to discover the origins of our own temperaments in a lifetime, harder yet to ferret it out in a 98-minute film. We must go on faith here.
All this said, the film ‘works’ because a certain highbrow reductionism is in play. Society and history are all in service of the singular question: will Wadjda be able to buy and ride a cycle? Of course, the answer must be a yes. Why make a film about a failed attempt? In this, Wadjda fits with our canons of conventional cinema. This may be harder than real life in Saudi Arabia allows. In this sense, Wadjda opens up a wormhole from our reality into another world, another inflected universe where similar, but not the same, rules apply. We are offered up a reality, but necessarily verisimilitude. So, when she finally does cycle, the audience has witnessed a secular miracle — the quiet reassertion of the individual against odds. In this, by the very act of witnessing Wadjda’s affection for rock music, the film suggests that there is nothing to fear, we Saudis are just like you. This is a potent message in our times marked by impotent rage on all sides. Yet, if there is any lesson from the past decade, paranoias in the West aren’t about the Other. The Other can be bombed, droned or renditioned away. But instead, as TV shows like The Homeland skilfully exploit, real anxieties simmer about the Others masquerading as the Self. Like any mythologising, Wadjda is a compendium of different kinds of half-truths. The kinds that the teller and the listener both suspect might be untrue in its entirety, but at least some half-truths have been aired in public. As long as these partial assessments of the worlds coincide, any such film is likely to be a success in the West.
But Wadjda’s translation of experiences is even more subtle. Its vocabulary plays to two kinds of audiences. One, naturally, the West that has funded and patronised the film, in parts. But the other, is the upwardly mobile and culturally Wahabi cosmopolitan population in the Gulf regions. The consequence of these two audiences is a play on cognitive dissonances. Nowhere is this seen more than in the middle of the film. There, Wadjda enrolls in a Quranic recitation competition to collect the prize money to fund her bicycle. Seeing this, the Western viewer consoles herself that this recitation is done for tactical, and perhaps even cynical, reasons. At least, thankfully, she isn’t a believer who takes it all seriously. A viewer with an interest in the Quran hears a note of caution and divine decree, when Wadjda recites the Sura that exhorts against the duplicity of unbelievers, of warnings against those faking faith in this awesome Abrahmic God. This scene overflows with interpretive possibilities. At the end of that segue, when Wadjda triumphs in the competition thanks to her melodious voice and diligence, one wonders where this victory comes from — from mere manipulation of sound and effect, or from some inner revelation that informs Wadjda’s subconscious. Irrespective of the answer, the filmmaker leans into a socio-religious reservoir of cultural memes, without which identities have no meaning. This urge to tactically position oneself — to leverage roles as need be — between the imperatives of the Self and the imperium of the outside world governed by God is what the film plays on. The Islamic world and the West are mere stand-ins for this old Manichean struggle.
More prosaically, the film straddles the compromises of an emergent demographic. It is an artistic manifestation of a rhetorical position that the new Saudi generation overwhelmingly adopts in public discourse; one that doesn’t seek to abandon its cultural, religious and socio-political markers. Such a film would have been impossible to shoot but instead it argues for the need to expand the space and methods for women to participate in it. In this sense, the film is a coming-of-age of long and often lonely efforts of individuals like Princess Lolowah bint Faisal since the 1960s or more recently the reforms announced by King Abdullah to include women in the Shura or to allow women to vote in the municipal election. But, as is the wont of art, the film also prefigures the set of possibilities and aspiration that many young girls in far-flung regions like Asir could entertain. No doubt many in the Islamic core and periphery nations will watch this film on pirated videos and private cable services; not just in far-flung regions of Saudi Arabia like Asir or Jizan, but also in overwhelmingly Muslim parts of India like Malappuram or Muzaffarabad. This tale of a spunky, scheming girl who struggles against tradition will strike a chord. For the progressive, even if gradualist, message of the film, we must be grateful. For her part, Wadjda, as is her wont in the movie, takes matters into her own hand, cycles away and stares into that future. Now, she must wait for the rest of Saudi society to catch up with her. Perhaps, in true cinematic fashion, in a decade, there will be a sequel. Only this time, she will be on the highway driving a car.