CLIO TALKS BACK: Making History: Haifaa Al Mansour’s feature length film "Wadjda"

CLIO can’t say enough good things about the first feature-length film to come out of Saudi Arabia, which she saw last week. This is the story of a spunky girl on the threshhold of adolescence, who wears tennis shoes, and whose dream is to obtain a bicycle and race her young friend who happens to be a boy. In pursuing her dream, Wadjda confronts all the “religious and social strictures of a kingdom literally shrounded in sexual anxiety, misogyny and severe repression,” to quote Ann Hornaday’s review in the Washington Post. This film is “making” women’s history.

What is eerie about this film is that the ten-year-old Wadjda and her family live a lot like we do in the West – the interior of her home looks much like a middle-class Western home, the activities that take place within it seem quite recognizable. And yet – there is purdah. Wadjda’s mother tells her that she is now old enough to cover herself when she goes out: the black abeyah comes out of the closet. The beautiful mother, a working woman, is very concerned about the avoiding glances of men, even as she contemplates dressing sexier to regain the attention of her husband, who is on the verge of taking a second wife. Wadjda places her name on the family tree, only to discover that someone has removed it; she learns that females don’t count on the Saudi family tree. And so it goes…Wadjda plots and schemes to win a Koran recitation contest so that she can buy that bike--and you will have to see the film yourself to find out how it ends. It is brilliantly conceived and executed.

 In an interview for National Public Radio (with Rachel Martin), the director Haifaa Al Mansour – who had to direct from a closed van – said:
“I couldn't make a film where women are all innocent and they're all striving to be free and all that; it's not real. I think a lot of women are the gatekeepers, a lot of women reinforce the values ... For me, it was not making women all the victims, and men are the oppressors. 
I wanted also to make a film that is happy. A lot of people who make films from the Middle East, [they are] almost like a horror movie when you go. And it makes me very uncomfortable watching a film like that, and I feel helpless. I feel like a victim.  
I wanted to make a film that when I see it, I feel powerful. And I think it’s time now in the Middle East to bring films of that type. It is a hard, tough time now in the Middle East, and it is up to people to change things — if they really change at heart. Not only by changing regimes and political stuff, but also by believing in women. By believing in others and becoming more tolerant, more respectful for other cultures. ... It is time to open up the culture."
If Clio’s readers want to get insight into contemporary Muslim family culture in Saudi Arabia, this is the film for you! You can view the trailer for the film here, and the director’s NPR interview here. If and when you have seen the film, let Clio know what you think by commenting below.