NZIFF 2013 Diary: WADJDA

For the 2013 New Zealand International Film Festival I figured I’d try and keep some kind of a review diary covering each of the 20 or so films I’m planning to see. It’s going to be a busy couple of weeks.

wadjda640Second up for the 2013 NZIFF for me was Wadjda, and it sets a pretty high bar for everything else that will follow.

Unsurprisingly for the first Saudi Arabian film directed by a female director, Wadjda is amongst the best films about women that I can recall seeing. The film follows the titular character, a girl of around 12, and her experiences as a fiesty and independent girl on the verge of womanhood in a world where feminine expression and individualism are fiercely suppressed.

Wadjda stands out for her tomboyish, competitive nature, and while such a character is commonplace in films made in the west, the location of the story brings a great freshness to her. The simple premise of a kid wanting to save enough money to buy herself a bicycle gains a level of great significance because of the cultural backdrop, and Wadjda’s sassy spirit shines out like a beacon.

Director Haifaa al-Mansour refrains from explicitly condemning the patriarchal system in which Wadjda lives, offering a matter of fact tone that nonetheless exposes some of the hypocrisies of the Saudi way of life through her characters. Much of the film focuses on study of the Quran, and the challenges that women are born into because of the sacred text. The adult women that Wadjda engages with on a daily basis can be glamourous, yet are bound to strict roles and conservative measures, hiding themselves from men even in their own homes.

What makes Wadjda herself such a compelling character is her youth allows her a level of curious freedom which is gradually being stripped away from her. The bike comes to represent everything she will be denied as an adult, a threat to her purity, and a symbol of hope for a more progressive future. The film’s bittersweet ending cuts deep, but leaves a feeling that Wadjda has learned an important lesson, even if she doesn’t know it yet.

I accept that my thoughts on Wadjda are probably a little jumbled, but while it’s a fairly simple story, it offers more complex emotional subtext. It’s portrayal of gender in a difficult culture for women feels very real, and for that alone it’s importance cannot be overlooked.