What a precocious little girl Wadjda is. Would you think, at the age of ten, she should have the audacity to ask her mother for a bicycle? Or wear battered purple converse instead of the plain black shoes of her classmates? She makes mix-tapes of Western music recorded from the radio and makes bracelets to sell in the playground. Unsurprisingly, she runs into a lot of trouble with her strict headmistress and often finds herself in her office. Why can’t she be like the rest of the students? Why can’t she follow her mother’s example?
Wadjda is the first feature film made by a female director from Saudi Arabia and boy has it taken a long time to make. Most of that time has been spent by Haifaa Al-Mansour in finding funding for her project as she insisted on filming entirely in Saudi Arabia for reasons of authenticity. Such are the strict laws in Saudi Arabia that Al-Mansour was not allowed to actually be seen working with her male actors in public, meaning that for much of the outdoor shooting, she would have to sit in a van in front of a camera and direct the actors from there.
The fact that this film has been made at all, considering its production history, is a small miracle. There are no cinemas or theatres in Saudi Arabia to speak of, hence why Al-Mansour went looking for foreign investment and that Wadjda is both a German and a Saudi Arabian production. The truth however, is that even despite the knowledge of how hard this film must have been to make, it is on its own merits as a movie, one of the finest films of the year.
Many people will go to see this and remark that they enjoyed it, that it was simple, uplifting and a nice piece of entertainment. So what makes it so brilliant? The fact is that Wadjda displays that very special piece of craft, working ostensibly within a set formula to then explore deeper issues. You will recognise the now somewhat hackneyed use of the school competition as a plot device, among many others. But originality is not always a guarantee of quality; nor does it always have to be explicit. In many ways, Wadjda is mesmerizingly original, for how often do you see a film of this genre use age-old formulas to explore the very moral structure of an entire society and the role of women within it?
The film that Al-Mansour has made is nothing short of remarkable. It is very simple and do not think that to achieve that kind of simplicity is at all easy; the lyricism and clarity of the film’s structure and narrative is just as difficult to achieve as the most convoluted structure of a thriller. It is goodhearted and very respectful of the culture that it explores, although not at all uncritical. It is acted beautifully by actors that we have never seen before, particularly by Waad Mohammed, who plays the role of the eponymous ten year old. What makes this film truly great is not only that it is an important film but also one of the most moving and successful narrative pieces of cinema on release this year. In its own delicate and quiet way it is astonishingly profound. You’ll leave the cinema with a smile and a lot to seriously think about.
As a point of interest, there is also another brilliant film on release this week, showing at Cornerhouse, called Frances Ha. These two films are very different from each other in many ways, although similar insofar as they both have strong female characters that dominate the film, something which we are luckily seeing a bit more of in cinema, although there is still a way to go. Frances Ha is a brilliantly funny and incredibly poignant film that recalls the best of Woody Allen and the most accessible of Jean-Luc Godard. My recommendation is that you make time for a double-bill this week, because to miss either of these two films on their cinematic run would be very sad indeed.
Review by LiveWire Film Critic, James Martin (July ’13)