Judge Michael Nazarewycz likes to ride his bicycle, he likes to ride his bike.
"You know, a bike isn't a toy for girls. Especially not for well-behaved, devout girls who protect their soul and honor."
Being first at something—especially when it comes to movies—has lost a lot of luster. So many true "firsts" have been accomplished in this industry that an event now heralded as the first of something is usually heavily caveated. TENT POLE: THE MOVIE is the first sequel from a rebooted franchise to open to more than its predecessor when the Fourth of July falls on a Tuesday and blah blah blah.
But there are still some firsts that are not manufactured for spin, and Wadjda lays claim to three of them…
• The first feature film shot in Saudi Arabia
Those are impressive—and legitimate—firsts.
Facts of the Case
Title character Wadjda (Waad Mohammed, in her first onscreen appearance) is an 11-year-old girl and like most 11-year-old girls, she wants a bike. Unlike most 11-year-old girls, though, Wadjda is part of a culture in Saudi Arabia that forbids girls from riding bikes. This doesn't stop her from pursuing her dream. When the bracelets she weaves and sells to her classmates don't generate enough sales, she enters a Koran-based school contest to win the money to buy her bike. But she is forever under the watchful eye of a strict school headmistress, Ms. Hussa (Ahd, The Imperialists Are Still Alive!), who has a secret of her own. Meanwhile, Wadjda's mother (Reem Abdullah, also in her first onscreen appearance) is struggling with her job and a husband (and Wadjda's father) who is considering taking a second wife.
What makes Wadjda such a marvel is how deftly writer/director Haifaa al-Mansour (Women Without Shadows) integrates the Saudi culture—or at least what the Saudi culture dictates in terms of the treatment of women—into circumstances we (read: non-Saudis) can easily relate to.
We can easily relate to a young girl who wants a bike and must earn the money to get it. We can easily relate to a headmistress who pays particular attention to a student, with the potential for disciplinary action. We can easily relate to parents having marital problems or a single mom (in everything but name) struggling with a job's long commute. We can even easily relate to a young boy befriending a young girl, complete with that sense of middle-school puppy love between them.
We have lived through these moments, either in real life or vicariously through film, so when they are projected through the lens of Saudi cultural mores, the impact of those mores is increased because they seem unfathomable to us in the context of the story lines.
"Girls can't ride bikes?" "Men can just go get second wives?" And so on. Taking our reality and making it unreal to us by turning it into someone else's reality makes for a compelling watch.
Next, al-Mansour weaves all of this into a genuine and moving story. Although they might be shocking, the cultural challenges are never presented for shock value; they are presented as the way of life and as conflict points for the characters. This is the most fascinating part of the film, because there is a real struggle within the characters to remain respectful of their culture yet be the individual people they are. Making matters more curious (to the viewer) are some of the "modern" conveniences people with archaic beliefs enjoy, particularly Wadjda, who laces up her Chucks while listening to music on her Beats, while at the same time dad plays a video game on the family flat screen. The dichotomy takes a bit to adjust to, but that is no detriment.
Best of all, al-Mansour never politicizes anything; never is there a moment when someone tries to rise up against the norm. She tells a story and uses the reality of things to her best storytelling advantage. It's a delicate mix and al-Mansour, who before this had only one documentary credit to her name, presents it like a Hollywood veteran.
Speaking of credits, of the 30 actors and actresses credited on IMDb, only Ahd has previous acting credits; this is the first credited film for everyone else. It is surprisingly effective, as casting local unknowns adds to the film's authentic feel. Granted, only the leads are challenged, but still. As for those leads, everyone does fine work, but they pale next to Waad Mohammed, who is full of joy and light and has all of the spunk you want from a girl in that role without the camera-mugging we've come to expect from cable TV princesses here in the US.
Given that Wadjda was shot exclusively in Riyadh, offering viewers a look of Saudi Arabia through a lens we've not looked through before, I wish al-Mansour had gone with a wider aspect ratio. That, however, does not deter from the great looking 1.78:1/1080p transfer. Images are clear throughout, particularly the color palate of everyday Saudi life; even dulled earth-tones have a sharpness to them. Also excellent is the DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track, mixing well the sounds of everyday Saudi life that hum throughout.
In addition to an audio commentary track with al-Mansour, as well as the 38-minute "Directors Guild of America Q&A" with the writer/director, there is a riveting 33-minute behind-the-scenes feature, "The Making of Wadjda." Take all of the challenges you can have with a location shoot, then complicate them with the rigid less-than-friendly-to-women culture of Saudi Arabia. Teaser: the director isn't always on set, yet she still directs her actors. So many making-of features look and feel the same; this one doesn't. Also look for trailers and a DVD copy as part of this set.
Insightful but not intrusive, topical but not heavy; Wadjda is a delight.
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