Viewed at the London Film Festival on 11/10/2012
First time (in more ways than one) Saudi Arabian director Haifaa Al-Mansour’s film Wadjda looked like it could turn out to be a film that is more important for what it represents than what it contains. Upon viewing it, unfortunately it must be said to be just that. It’s a pleasant, uplifting film competently made, and passionately acted, but also a very by-the-numbers one, choosing a simplistic, sentimental narrative with an equally simplistic underlying message over a film with any real meat to it. It is arguable that this conservatism of content is a result of the nature of the films production, (shot and produced entirely in Saudi Arabia, a first for Saudi cinema, achieved no less by a female director – and passing miraculously through the fiercely conservative hierarchy there with not only minimal obstacle, but with official permission,) but directors like Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi have achieved much more, with just as much at stake, if not the sizable gender barrier to boot.
The better story of Wadjda happens to be the one of its production, and not the one the film tells. The lasting impact the film will have will not come from the symbol of freedom and empowerment that Al-Mansour’s story of a girl striving to own a bicycle so she can race her male schoolfriend but in the audience reaction to the directors own striving, to create film in a country where such initiative is suppressed emphatically. The accomplishment of Haifaa Al-Mansour was always going to outweigh the accomplishment of the film’s young titular protagonist Wajdja, and in a way this is understandable, the parallel narrative of the young Wadjda’s pushing through patriarchial repression runs well alongside Al-Mansours own struggle to get her film made. The problem is, her own story is a much more interesting, well told one than the one she creates in the film.
Waad Mohammed, the ten year old actress discovered for the film, is fantastic in the role of Wadjda, and is certainly the best thing about the film. The story that unfolds around her is what lets her down. It is all very saccharine, and unfolds exactly as expected scene after scene in a manner that becomes infuriating and tiresome. There are some affecting moments, such as Wadjda’s stirring competition Koran reading, (her recital voice was the main reason she was initially picked for the role, Al-Mansour has said) but none of it rings ultimately true, and the finale with Wadjda cycling her well earnt bike proudly is a fittingly off-putting closer to film too heavily glazed in sentiment. Those who like the style of the typical Oscar-baiting Western drama will undoubtedly be moved by this relentless barrage of happiness and courage against all odds, but viewers without a stomach for simple sentiment might fit it a little harder to bear. Al-Mansour creates a good picture of Saudi Arabia, showing the home and school life of average Saudi people well, displaying the complications of the conservative nature of the country for its citizens, and the whole thing provides Western audiences with a sense of Saudi culture, the like of which has never been seen before, but as said, narratively it is mostly a bore.
Perhaps it is a fair enough that a filmmaker who must have gone through a lot to get where she is rests in the sentimental and shallow and makes a film that celebrates her own struggle as well as the struggle of all of Saudi’s women, but it would have been nice to see Al-Mansour push for a little variation of tone and depth of meaning. Indeed, it seems unfair to criticise her for playing it safe when evidently in getting her film made she took great risks, but the rudimentary film she made is such a contrast to the confidence and perseverance she would have needed to get it produced that it seems a shame the outcome is so bland. Still, it is undeniably new to see Saudi Arabian life on screen and many have and will find inspiration in her film, and the reaction validates its existence in a way that the films content cannot. It is not going to be released there, for there are no theatres in Saudi Arabia, but the director has said it will be screened on television, hopefully more or the less in the form it has been presented outside of the country, so Wadjda is undeniably important, especially to the people it portrays, but maybe soon Saudi Arabia will see a National film with a little more weight to it.