Two important notes about Wadjda, a movie about women in Saudi Arabia, which opens on Friday at the Cedar Lee:
1) It's the first film shot entirely within Saudi borders, and by a female writer-director, no less. Haifaa Al-Mansour evidently spent years overseeing production, sometimes coordinating shots via walkie-talkie from a van.
2) Cleveland Cinemas has demonstrated an admirable commitment to films and filmmakers from the Middle East and deserves recognition for their ongoing efforts on that score. Wadjda is only the latest in a vibrant string of titles from that part of the world.
The film opens on the toe-tapping Chuck Taylors of the young and "spunky" Wadja. She's a social outlier in Riyadh, a girl who doesn't conform to the expected fashions and behaviors of her classmates. She makes bracelets and sells them at her madrasa, listens to mixtapes of American alternative music and yearns only to buy a bike so that she can race her neighborhood pal Abdullah (with whom a budding romance never quite buds). Meantime, Wadja's mother spats with her father about an imminent second marriage and suffers the dire logistics of commuting to a job three hours away.
Despite protests from the women in her life—"If you ride a bike, you'll never bear children!"—Wadja starts saving for the sparkling new model that's just arrived at a local toy shop. And when her school announces a competition in Koranic recitation with prize money that would cover the bike's purchase, Wadja fully commits herself to that enterprise. She's able to overcome her hurdles with the pronunciation and vocalization of old-school Arabic only because her heart's desire is so close. She even befriends the toy-shop owner and checks in on "her bike" every day after school.
Ultimately, Wadja succeeds as a cultural tour of the Saudi female experience: The film shows a striking range of practical "women problems": anxiety about menstruation; the inconveniences of etiquette around men; the inexhaustible imperative for delicacy. It also addresses grander and more symbolic social inequalities: polygamy; the absence of women on family trees; and nearly absolute romantic and sexual inhibition. Wadja makes the struggles of a young girl the narrative centerpiece in a matrix of related struggles in the adult world. And though the metaphors are often a bit ham-handed, seeing this breadth of Saudi women living their day-to-day lives with almost zero interference from male characters seems worthwhile from an educational vantage.
But it's not what you'd call a triumph of filmmaking. In part because of the diversity of experience on display, it's never clear which storyline Al-Mansour means to emphasize. Wadja's final showdown, for instance, never accumulates momentum via montage or mounting adversity. And because the "final showdown" itself is a Koranic recitation which will decide only whether or not Wadja gets a bike, the stakes are almost sub-aquatically low here. No one's life hangs in the balance. No one's fate will be substantively altered. Shot in the rocky, beige, half-developed streets of metro Saudi Arabia, the film loses its visual novelty quickly and is more often than not pretty damn boring.
Still, Al-Mansour has made what might be called an important movie, if more for the fact of its existence than for its content. Though Wadja is not a particularly daring or complex examination of women in the Middle East, it is—without question—a movie about women in the Middle East made by a woman in the Middle East. Here's hoping it's the first of many.