The Venice Film Festival must take the honours for getting in the first ever Saudi Arabian movie, Wadjda, helmed by a woman, Haifaa al Mansour. Also, it is indeed the first ever to be shot completely inside the country.
The plot is grippingly narrated, and it highlights the sad plight of Saudi women, forced to play second fiddle to men, and to hide behind the drab black veil. But then there are people like Wadjda, though just 10 years old, who chooses to rebel and free herself from suffocating shackles. But for how long?
Premiering in the Horizons slot of the Festival, the film is bound to evoke a debate both in the Middle East and elsewhere. Happily, Mansour, who has also written the script, handles the theme with admirable restraint; it could have easily gone overboard with melodrama, given the fact that it deals with issues like a woman’s angst at her husband taking a second wife, and a very young girl’s repeated attempts at breaking Islamic rules and conventions.
Wadjda, played with remarkable natural ease by Waad Mohammed, loves to wear sneakers beneath her robe, and is bent on beating a neighbourhood boy, Abdullah (Al Gohani,) in a bicycle race. But the only hitch is that while he has cycle, she does not, and the one she fancies is out of her reach. For one, her mother will not let her ride a cycle (it is un-Islamic for women to do so, though I am told Saudi women have now been allowed to drive) and two, she does not have the money for it. So, little Wadjda begins to run errands in school, helping deliver lover letters that older girls write. However, a Quran competition at school comes like blessing with huge prize money.
A sub-text in the movie relates to Wadjda’s rather liberal mother and her failing efforts to stop her husband from marrying a second woman.
Although, the film may be somewhat formulaic, there are a number of moments which are pretty interesting. The headmistress of Wadjda’s school begins to enforce the Sharia law with an iron hand probably to safeguard herself against her own beauty. We hear a woman being caught with another man, as we also hear how pretty daughters are trouble.
Wadjda may not be great cinema, but it succeeds in driving a hard message quite splendidly: the way women in Saudi Arabia have been confined to narrow spaces. The veil and the rigid restrictions tell this all too clearly.