Haifaa Al Mansour, a USYD graduate, is the first female Saudi-Arabian film-maker and her film Wadjda, which she both wrote and directed, is the first feature to be shot entirely within the Kingdom. It was thus a project with inherent stylistic and logistic difficulties. It was directed largely via walkie-talkie, sometimes without direct vision, to avoid the obvious problem of a woman giving orders to men on the set. It was also deprived of a generic framework and directorial precedent. Set up to be only an imperfect trailblazer, Wadjda surpasses its own standards.
The premise is simple yet brilliant. Wadjda is a savvy young girl with her heart set on a bicycle (a symbol of rebellion and impurity for women) which she pursues through a Qur’an speaking competition, becoming a beacon of piety in the process. It is first and foremost a story about a rebellious young girl trying to get what she wants – unperturbed by the vicious and pervasive force of the patriarchy.
People should see this film for what it is: an inimitable narrative of personal expression in the face of an oppressive structure, and a humanising portal into a filmically isolated world. People should also see it for what it achieves: the depiction of material desire from within the folds of a burqa, and an insightful, and at times hilarious, script.
Wadjda navigates the often non-existent line between criticism of a patriarchal state and Islamaphobia. It gives the debate – which is the euphemism for misinformed and often racist assertions about what Islam is – complexity. It gives women in Saudi Arabia a face that is not the expected and simplistic one that is so often espoused. It shows that it is possible to enjoy facets of Islam without being complicit in the patriarchy. And if anything, it is from that nuance alone that Wadjda gains its power.
Wadjda is coming soon to Australian cinemas.
For more of Honi’s coverage of the Sydney Film Festival see: