Saudi Arabian culture is a black hole in Western society — hidden behind the curtains of mainstream media and cautious taboo. Art can create understanding by throwing a viewer into another’s world they don’t feel comfortable in and “Wadjda,” the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, gives a fascinating insight into a cultural unknown. But while female director, Haifaa Al-Mansour, does take on Saudi society’s gender inequality, this is strictly tongue-in-cheek.
Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), a forthright 10-year-old girl living in the suburbs of Riyadh, enters a Koran recitation competition to raise money for a bike. This simple childhood goal is marred by the theocratic judgment of her peers as Wadjda tries to navigate a milieu that deems her rock music evil, Converse shoes inappropriate and ambition unladylike. She seeks solace in her relationship with little Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani) who seems to be only male figure that sees gender as no obstacle.
The young pair shows the triumph of personal spirit over an oppressive ideology. An ideology Al-Mansour lampoons with melting charm and fine comical discipline. Wadjda’s mother fears the girl will lose her virginity to a bike saddle, she pins her name to an all-male family tree and huffs at the thought that men can’t see her without her veil. There’s a subtle irreverence here that’s purified by the child protagonist and practiced with good taste by a skilled writer.
Al-Mansour takes a minimalist stance — allowing the story to wash over you and, in doing so, open up interpretation. This direction works initially but it also holds this picture back from greatness. We do get a satisfying climax but the film’s formless structure craved a deeper moral imprint from the writer to really pull the heartstrings. In other words, there could have been more punch under the folly.
We couldn’t expect perfection but this is still a promising dawn of Arabic cinema. The squeaky clean sentimentality masks a message crying to break out. Maybe we’ll all of it next time.