Can you imagine what it would be like to live in a world where men and women are forbidden to interact with one another in public; where it is illegal for women to drive cars or for little girls to ride bicycles because it is considered detrimental to their virtue; where women must use separate entrances and eat in separate spaces in restaurants? It seems too incredible and ridiculous to even imagine. But unfortunately, this reality has existed for many women throughout our (human beings’) sordid history, and what is even more incredible, is that it continues in some parts of the world even to this today.
Yesterday, I saw the movie Wadjda, by first time director Haifaa al-Mansour, about a “spunky” 11-year-old girl growing up in a small town in Saudi Arabia. Now when I say, “first time director,” I do mean what is usually intended by this description of this being al-Mansour’s first feature-length film. However, in this case, the phrase denotes a bit more than just this particular auteur’s inexperience. Not only is this her first film, but she is also the first woman to direct a feature-length film in Saudi Arabian history, and is actually the first director period to shoot an entire movie in the country. And as a woman living in a world like the one described above, this is no small feat.
The film follows the title character, Wadjda, through that pivotal time in a Saudi woman’s life, when the innocence and freedom of her childhood is fading away and she is expected to take up the traditional proprieties and duties of womanhood. However, as the film opens on a pair of purple-laced, high-top Chuck Taylors – the universal sign of postmodern youth rebellion – amongst a sea of plain black dress shoes, it is made quite clear just how Wadjda feels about the future that awaits her: not only is it something she is going to struggle with but, even more so, against.
Al-Mansour says she first began making films because she “had been trying to assert [her]self and find [her] voice” in a culture where “women are invisible” and “don’t matter.” In her first project, a short film called Who?, she used a male serial killer who murdered women while disguised in a burka as a metaphor for women’s lack of identity and individuality in a society that forces them to be covered from head-to-toe whenever out in public. But in Wadjda, she eschews all pretense at metaphor by employing an Italian Neorealist style to immerse the viewer in the harsh reality which women in modern-day Saudi Arabia – ranked 145 out of 148 on the UN’s Gender Inequality Index – are made to endure.
Throughout the film, the audience is exposed to the indignities that Saudi women experience on a daily basis, as Wadjda’s mother is berated and harassed by her male chaperon/driver and then left by her husband for another woman because she is unable to provide him a male heir. We see Wadjda reprimanded by her school’s headmistress for being seen uncovered by a group of male construction workers and scolded by her mother for singing loud enough that her father and his friends may hear as she prepares their dinner (and then must eat the scraps that they leave as her own meal for the evening).
Al-Mansour says one of the hardest parts of making the film was being forced to direct all outdoor scenes through walkie-talkie while hiding in a van because of the strict gender segregation policies. But she did not allow it – or the fact that it took her 5 years to procure funding – to dissuade her because she feels “it is important for Arab women to see stories like this, about people who break the norm…[and] to show you can step out of line and survive it.” The very fact that they were given permission to shoot the film, though, she believes shows that things are at least starting to move in a better direction – especially in a country that has no movie theaters because the cinema itself is considered to be “sinful” and “immoral.”
It is a bleak yet beautiful film that al-Mansour has created that conjures so many conflicting emotions – anger, sorrow, empathy, hatred, hope – as Wadjda refuses to submit to the conformist, oppressive society which weighs down upon her. Although it is true that things are becoming more moderate and open as women for the first time in the country’s history are now able to hold political office and even compete in the Olympics, Al-Mansour acknowledges that “there is still a long, long way to go, but hopefully things like [Wadjda] pave the way for bigger changes.”