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Saturday, February 15, 2014

Flirting with Rebellion in the Fearless Coming of Age Drama, WADJDA

An 11-year-old girl in Saudi Arabia, wearing sneakers and a T-shirt with the words "I'm a Catch!" printed on it in large font, is helping her mother in the kitchen when she plainly declares that she wants a bike. It is this scene that beautifully encapsulates what is so refreshingly defiant about the Independent Spirit and BAFTA award-nominated drama, WADJDA.

Writer/director Haifaa Al-Mansour (the first ever Saudi Arabian female filmmaker) tells the oft-untold story of what it means to be a woman in the conservative Saudi capital of Riyadh, through the eyes of a young girl (Waad Mohammed) who's determined to challenge it at every turn. While her mother (Reem Abdullah) spends her days doing household chores and desperate to convince her husband not to take on a second wife, Wadjda has her heart set on a shiny new bicycle that will finally allow her the freedom to race her best friend, a boy named Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani). It is that fearless rebellion that sets Wadjda apart from her peers, those who can impressively recite the Qur'an with no hesitation and never neglect to wear their veils like she often does. Wadjda is the ultimate revolutionary, even if she's not really trying to be.

In fact, much of WADJDA is told in a poignant series of contrasting elements. As it unfolds a rich coming of age story of a young girl, it parallels the point of view of her mother--a woman grappling with her own fidelity to both her religion and her marriage. While she struggles to hold on to her nuptials and be the perfect wife, she realizes with reluctance that this is all for not. So she attempts to apply for a job in town, but later decides against betraying her culture and womanhood. Meanwhile, all Wadjda wants is a bike, even if it means participating in a contest in which she's not invested--a Qur'an recital competition--and winning the money on her own. These deliberate yet frustratingly halfhearted endeavors further capture the complexities within the society--and the dual nature of balancing inclination and obligation among women.

By highlighting these sociopolitical trials through the point of view of a young girl who chooses to contend with them in her own search for identity, Al-Mansour romanticizes the idea of innovation in that it is sparked by an innocent. It is symbolic revolution at its best (a singular request for a bike) that caters to the notion that anyone--big, small, man, woman or child--can make a difference, no matter how seemingly insignificant. Wadjda's tenacity not only compels her to blaze her own trail, but it also inspires her own mother to take the leap she'd been fighting against all these years--spiritual, emotional and social independence. That is the very thing that stirs each of us as individuals.

A moving film that is punctuated by two heartening debut performances WADJDA never stops to second guess itself in its intent or declaration. Al-Mansour's assured style and intrepid pursuit of personal truth catapults her to the top of the list of filmmakers to watch.

Rating: A (***** out of *****)


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