Saturday, September 21, 2013

"Wadjda": an on-location look at Saudi society, through the eyes of a teenage girl

Sony’s new release from Match Factory, Tribeca and Venice film festivals, “Wadjda” (directed by a woman, Haifaa Al-Mansour) seems to be the first film ever shot on location in Saudi Arabia, a country which apparently still has no public cinemas as we know them.

The film was shot around Riyadh, but the outdoor scenes seem to be in drab, flat neighborhoods of low-rise concrete residences and shops.  Only once, at the end, does the film take us to the edge of the desert and its nothingness. The sunny sky always seems hazy, even smoggy.  This is the closest we can come to taking a trip to another planet with a real civilization, except going to China perhaps. 

Ordinary non-Muslim Americans can’t go to Saudi Arabia very easily, although I know a gay Jewish man who actually biked in Saudi Arabia in the early 1980’s.
The story concerns a pre-teen girl Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) who wants go buy a bicycle.  In Saudi culture, women have been forbidden to ride bikes if of child-bearing age, or (usually) drive cars.  She meets all the usual cultural resistance from her mother (Reem Abdullah) and her girls’ school, especially the headmistress Ms. Hussa (Ahd).  She decides to join a Koran-recitation contest to earn enough money for the bike.  Being very smart and intellectually gifted (probably capable of medical school), she wins it.  But then the school make her give her winnings to Palestinian fighters.  Can she still get her bike?  That’s a screenwriting problem. 
The movie (98 minutes) is slow, and a bit tedious with a lot of dialogue about mundane matters from a western perspective.  But the film shows well the foundations of Saudi and “fundamentalist” Sunni Muslim culture (as did Iran’s “A Separation” for Shiite Islam), as tied to disciplining every single person.  Yes, totalitarian societies do that.  But the fanatical attention to separating and covering the sexes in Saudi society seems predicated on the idea that almost every woman can become a wife and mother and every male can become a husband and father; no distractions are tolerated.  Infidelity or “sexual immorality” is not so much a crime against the consent or trust of another person as it is against the perceive future of the culture, which requires babies raised according to religious rules. The script, in a couple places, specifically refers to loyalty not just to family but to one's "tribe".  My understanding is that the Islamist idea of the afterlife is that it starts at the end of all time, not just at death.  From the viewpoint of physics, that makes less sense.
The best official site seems to be here
The film, despite a major distributor, seems to play in only one theater in the DC area, Landmark’s Bethesda Row, in an area with heavy construction and detours and inconvenient from northern VA, although I got there OK and parked in a garage about six blocks away for a Saturday morning show. 
Wikipedia attribution link for aerial picture of Riyadh 

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