Sunday, March 23, 2014

Review: WADJDA

Wadjda wants a bike. She can't afford one yet but that's all she wants. She sells football bracelets that she makes herself to the other girls at school but they aren't going to do it. The next time she's up before the headmistress they are taken away and declared forbidden so that's gone, too. Oh, Wadjda (pronounce it Wazhda) lives in Riyadh, capital of Saudi Arabia and girls there don't ride bikes.

Her father is an occasional visitor as he wanders the social realm in search of a wife who can lift his social status and bear him a son. Her mother works a job across town which makes her dependent on a driver (she's not allowed to drive).

Between school and home there's Abdulla, also about eleven, whose trades taunts with her that are energised by their frankly sweet mutual attraction. There's also the everything shop bursting with all kinds of cheap rubbish inside but puts on display on the footpath a small squadron of kids bikes that gleam with freedom. Freedom has a price and it's way beyond what the bracelets are going to rake in.

So far this might as well get in line with all the other inheritors of Italian neo-realism, a genre that ventured great truths through spare means. For that, all it would have to do would be to follow Wadjda's progress in getting the bike or not and, happy or sad ending, that would fill the checklist. But something else is happening here.

The first scene of this film involved her joining her classmates in a devotional song. She's crap at it and is sent out of the room. A few scenes in will tell you that it wasn't singing but the song. She'll happily sing along to the foreign pop in her room as she twists the bracelets into being. She's just not a joiner. She doesn't reject her family's religion but doesn't express any piety either. When the opportunity to make the ticket price of the two-wheeler compels religion she takes to it with the seriousness of a child making a discovery. Does it make her religious? See the film.

That classroom song is staged as a kind of verite scene of daily life, routine by which we see our heroine in context. It is also a direct tribute to Robert Bresson's Mouchette from 1967. Mouchette, though pretty and capable is a social leper. While she shares her fellow teenager's joy at things like dodgem cars she finds it impossible to truly connect with anyone until an encounter with an older outsider offers a kind of escape. She failed choir practice, too, and was humiliated for it.

Wadjda's intelligence (made electrically animate by Reem Abdulla whose bright grin both knows and cajoles) keeps her apart from everyone in her life and brings to the fore the intelligence of the women who surround her which has long been as veiled as their faces out of doors.

There has been some commentary about this film, the first Saudi film directed by a woman, suggesting that come opportunity was taken to serve the constraints of Saudi society to Western audiences as a kind of neo-realist exploitation flick. As we see Wadjda approach her goal we wonder how much of the freedom she expects of it will materialise and how fleeting it might be as the world around her seems daily to fit her up for silent subservience.

To my mind if there has been any distancing it is that of writer/director Haiffa Al-Mansour who must put her own distance between her own experience and the world of Wadjda, to actively seek an alienness in the familiarity. By the time we see Wadja catching sight of the dangerous liberty in front of her we get the distinct feeling that the same feeling ran rampant in the mind behind the camera that brought this vision to the screen.

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