Writer-director Haifaa al-Mansour’s Wadjda, a film about the oppression and presumed inferiority of women in Saudi Arabia, begins with a downward-tilted shot of school girls’ feet. One pair is notably different from the others, sporting purple-laced Chuck Taylors instead of uniform-y slip-ons. These, of course, are the feet of 10-year-old Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), whose rebellious nature is immediately, ham-handedly underlined as a rally cry for all Saudi women. Reluctant to sing in a choral-type lesson among her tuneful classmates, Wadjda is quiet and unengaged, to which an instructor reacts with, “What’s the matter, Wadjda? You don’t want us to hear your voice?” Cut to Wadjda inside a bedroom that’s an effigy to Western pop culture, listening to Grouplove’s “Tongue Tied.”
This is the sort of deliberate, standard-issue metaphor that Wadjda consistently trades in, and it relates to the film’s inherent contradictions regarding conformity. Before long, Wadjda is enrolled in a competition about the importance of exerting vocal dexterity, in the same school that wholly promotes its native society’s silencing of women. Meanwhile, Wadjda, a film with the paramount purpose of counteracting said silencing, opts to fall in line with a markedly conformist structure, thus effectively shooting its supposed objective in the foot.
That’s an shame, seeing as the film has the distinction of being the first feature shot entirely within Saudi Arabia’s borders, and the first helmed by a female Saudi director. Mansour spent five years securing financing and overseeing production in the capital of Riyadh, where she often had to direct via walkie-talkie while hiding in a van. You’d think such circumstances would have galvanized her to make a more daring film, but instead she’s made what largely feels like the Saudi equivalent of any number of Hollywood tales about scrappy underdogs.
Wadjda is friends with a boy, Abdullah (Abdullrahman Algohani), who teases her while riding his bike, and fosters a not-so-secret crush on her. Bent on beating Abdullah in a race, Wadjda pines for a bike of her own, specifically a green one gleaming in the front of a local shop. She can’t afford it, nor will her mother (Reem Abdullah) permit her to buy it, but her school’s Qu’ran recital contest comes with a cash prize that—whaddaya know—will cover the cost.
To her credit, Mansour does present a variety of female experiences and generational echoes within this world, where even the climate is oppressive (“Come tomorrow with your head covered, or I’ll reserve a place in the sun for you,” warns Wadjda’s headmistress with literal, scorching fervor). The headmistress, played by Ahd Kamel, hypocritically copes with inequality in secret by bedding a man on the side, while Wadjda’s mother refuses to accept that Wadjda’s father (Sultan Al Assaf) is seeking a second wife who might bear him a son and heir. Moreover, though the powerful influence of men is felt, Mansour mostly sidelines her male characters, as if trying to evoke the no-boys-allowed tradition of George Cukor’s The Women.
It’s lovely to think that young children in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere will find Wadjda inspiring. But few others should expect much in the way of artful innovation, as Wadjda, with its climactic, scholastic contest, is more Bee Season than Bicycle Thieves. It plays less like reality and more like boilerplate filmic fantasy, with its depiction of a setting rarely depicted on screen and the fact of its making feeling like a a beard—or veil, if you will—masking its mediocrity. The argument will be made that Mansour tamed her story to make it more widely and universally accessible, but, again, by doing so, she’s defeated her own purposes. It’s not like a film shot stealthily in one’s own restrictive country can’t be made and disseminated without compromise. Just ask Jafar Panahi, whose staggeringly brilliant This Is Not a Film was composed on the sly, smuggled out in a cake, and is without a single saccharine note.