A film from a country with no cinemas about a girl who just wants to ride a green bicycle.
Wadjda is a 2012 film, directed by Haifa Al Mansour. Groundbreaking in many ways, it is the first feature length film to be filmed entirely in Saudi Arabia, and the first female directed film from that country, but it wasn’t shown in Saudi cinemas. That’s because there are no cinemas in Saudi Arabia.
For something so disruptive to the status quo, it’s a very small story. Wadjda is a ten year old girl, who’s a bit of rebel. She listens to Western pop music, makes bracelets banned at school to sell to her classmates, and most notably wears black converse instead of the neat little ballet pumps her peers wear to school. The thrust of the story is that she wants to buy a green bike. This is made difficult for her not only because she needs to raise the money but because in Saudi Arabia, girls do not ride bicycles. It’s not strictly illegal but it’s certainly societally frowned upon. So the story is her trying to get this bicycle, while showing you little vignettes of her life at school and home, all of which serve to expose how difficult life is for women there.
Her mother is worried that her husband is taking a second wife because she hasn’t given him a son. She has to rely on a rude, frequently late driver to take her to work because women are not allowed to drive themselves. If her driver is too late, she might lose her job. But when she is offered a job with better pay she is put off because it’s an environment where men and women work together in close quarters.
Wadjda must wear a hijab to school but is still catcalled by men in the street. Girls are told off for giggling outside where men can hear, because a teacher says, “a woman’s voice is her virtue.” Despite the strictness of the teachers, banning bracelets, nail polish and magazines, there’s a rumour that the headmistress has a lover. A “thief” was spotted climbing over her garden wall. In one scene a girl is sharing a picture of her new husband. She is 11 and he is 20.
Other parts of Saudi culture are pointed out too. When asked to support a candidate in a local election, Wadjda’s mother replies “He’s not from our tribe. We won’t support him,” in a completely casual manner, suggesting tribal ties are still important in the 21st century here.
Mansour also shows some of the contradictions in the society: a world where women are supposed to cover themselves and not be vain but there a huge modern shopping malls. Wadjda’s father plays gory shoot-’em-up video games on a huge flat screen. There’s a shot at one point of Wadjda wearing a t-shirt that says “I’m a Catch” in English. It’s established that the characters don’t speak English. Her mother would never let her wear that shirt if she knew what it said. So, a foreign audience gets to see that despite its strict moralising Saudi Arabia is a modern capitalist country with all the regular trappings. But despite its modernism, it has what seem bizarre arcane conventions to us, like women not being able to drive.
This to me is one of the biggest things holding women back in The Kingdom. When your movement is restricted so is your freedom. If you don’t have a reliable driver, it’s harder for you to have reliable work, and as a result financial security. It’s harder for women to gather together and organise themselves to take action. If you’re old and sick and your male relatives can’t be bothered to look after you properly, it’s going to be harder for you to get prescriptions from the pharmacy or go see a doctor.
But, al-Mansour just wants a little girl to be able to ride a bike. This film is not a call to arms for a tidal wave of change. It’s a small story that just wants to shed some light on what life is like there. As a country with no cinemas, no film industry, an insider’s perspective of Saudi Arabia is rarely documented. Granted, the film had to be this way. It needed the backing of someone in government or al-Mansour would not have had the permits to film. It was hard enough with outdoor scenes. Al-Mansour would often sit in a tech van directing over the phone to a cameraman. Not that she was strictly forbidden from filming outside but it would have been too much hassle in some more conservative areas, she explained.
And now for a brief summary of Saudi politics, as it applies to this film (this is my very crude understanding). The country is ruled by the Al Saud family. There is a government but many of the positions are filled by princes of the Saud family or appointed by them. Being guardians of the the holiest sites in Islam, the Ka’ba in Mecca and the Prophet’s mosque in Medina, gives them more legitimacy to rule. They are religious and civil leaders. But Saudi Arabia is a young country and political power can shift. The Al Sauds are fans of Western investment and want to play a bigger role on the world stage. They are generally more liberal and progressive than the clerics who control a lot of policy. However, they have to steer a careful course, appeasing a growing middle class elite in their own country and satisfying the international community’s expectations of liberalism whilst maintaining support from the clerics and religious conservatives who help legitimise their power.
So, to get funding and approval for the film, Al Mansour had to tip-toe around the feminist issues she was raising. At no point is she condemning of Islam, nor does she directly point a finger at Saudi policy. Instead she subtly asks whether or not Wadjda’s teachers, and her society are being truly Islamic. The problem isn’t Islam, it’s the people who are practising its values poorly. In a Qur’an reciting competition, Wadjda sings a passage from Sura 2 about apostates, people pretending to be muslim but not really believing it.
“Allah hath set a seal on their hearts. The people … who say, ‘We believe in Allah and the Last Day,’ but they are not believers. They [think to] deceive Allah and those who believe, but they deceive not except themselves and perceive [it] not.”
To me, al-Mansour is clearly saying that adherence to strict rules may seem to be obeying God and may seem to make you a good Muslim, but it’s deceptive. True devotion comes from something more.
And the film has been a success! Saudi Arabia nominated Wadjda as its entry for the Oscars 2014 best foreign language film. It’s a big step to have this film so lauded in a country where it can’t even be shown in cinemas. On a state level things are improving too. Women were recently allowed to be appointed to the Shura council, Saudi Arabia’s proxy parliament, and given the vote in local municipal elections. Saudi female athletes took part in the Olympics for the first time in 2012, and in 2013 it was announced that women were permitted to ride bicycles. There are many restrictions to this. They must be covered completely, accompanied by a male guardian and only in restricted areas, and women still can’t drive cars which is a far more pressing concern, but these are the small incremental changes that al-Mansour approves of. She recognises the political situation of her country and that any progress has to come slowly.
All in all, it’s a worthwhile film that gives important insight into the daily lives of Saudi women. It’s sweet, funny and hopeful, and its support from the establishment is an important landmark in the fight for Saudi Arabian women’s rights.