Dearth is the scourge of the inquisitive mind, and honest reviews of the seminal movie from Saudi Arabia were hard to come by. I’ve checked. In the year between it making the rounds and my having watched it, I was perturbed by the unanimous acclaim thrown its way. Nothing is absolute. Save for death, maybe. Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes’ algorithm suggested otherwise. So I’ve read the reviews, and scoured the net for an impartiality that soon began to require the efforts a quest would. And so it was, on Google page 24 that I decided to see Wadjda for myself and author an opinion. This time I did find a torrent, picked a 1080i version and pressed play on my Xperia, and not that I stand pat by my suspicions today, but let’s just say I wasn’t wrong in harboring a yearlong skepticism. That it came to be is a feat impressive on many levels, and an achievement in logistics so monumental, but only that I’m afraid. And precisely because of those same circumstances, the hoopla generated is no more than a duped congregation that failed to see the forest for the trees. Yes, lost in all the ballyhoo and ensuing back-patting is that there were sleeves to roll up, and a film to critique. No wonder why no one listens to critics.
Saudi Arabia. The world’s favorite willful mental recluse the West is so eager to see saved from its own backwardness, except nothing of worth or merit was ever prayed into changing. Really, no sooner than the premiere tours concluded and limited releases cropped up in cosmopolitan urban centers the world over where Wadjda’s savvy PR team decided it belonged, that it was back to the status quo. And fortunately for said PR team is that no one reviews films past a certain point. Coincidentally that was also when Saudi Arabia returned to its rightful place — and a role she secretly relishes — of playing the bootycall no one wants to be seen associated with in broad daylight. We’ve all had that girlfriend. The lifeline during a dry spell. One we can’t quite navigate an exit from. She must be appeased to a certain degree. Appearances have to be made. And kept. But hopefully nothing to be parlayed into the longterm. With that knocked out of the way (the last country to its first ever film I would imagine), the nitty-gritty shall be addressed here, and hopefully elsewhere for future films, although I wouldn’t count on a budding industry to take root.
Now, Wadjda, I’ve found, barely shined to justify the accolades, and it suffers from enough miscues that would have sunk any other cinematic exercise were it not for a novel momentum surrounding its inception, and propelling the interest to want to see it. The flaws, many of which jumped out, run quite the gamut a multitude could afford one. But who’s counting? As primers, take the oversimplification of roots and causes, a subpar, maybe inexcusable cinematography in key moments, and an uneven consistency in the portrayal of its characters. The most glaring example comes early in the opening shot that arrives with an abruptness so overreaching it betrays nuance, not to mention patronizes the intelligence. It wasn’t persistent, per se, as I was able to shrug it off to stay with the film, but it did occur to me how even terrible films rarely botch their first opportunity at creating intrigue. In it, the school girls’ shoes are displayed, side by side in a compact Phalanx, in all the nondescript dullness conformity could conjure. You guessed it, a different pair, a uniquely distinct one, would break the mold next. Wadjda’s.
It is not a terrible movie, lest anything said comes off as too vitriolic. But merely average. It is a coming of age story with two subplots that exist only to hold off a hurried climax. This is the review in a nutshell. As for a condensed synopsis, it is: girl sees a bike she can’t have and devises a plan to acquire it. Legally of course. She is a bit of a tomboy, with a dash of drive underneath an innocent aloofness. A charming, adorable kid when she nails her lines. She is not of a well to do stock, a welcome variation on the customary wealthier families seen in TV dramas that fill in for a nonexistent film industry in the region. However her family can afford it with the case against it being social rather than financial. She is also an only child to a work-away-from-home father who longs for a son. Her mother, a school teacher, must contend with the realities of a long daily commute to work and the possibility of being usurped as a wife because she can’t bear any more children. If only she and he were around each other often, maybe they’d rekindle their flame. But that’s not how romance works in Saudi Arabia, no. By buying a dress, and showcasing her luxurious curves in it to other females — potential second wives — that’ll ward off the competition. Such is the dick-proofing method.
And such is the world to Haifa’s way of thinking, a view unchanged even by her marriage to an American. Unless there lied an attempt to speak to all audiences each in their own language. Now, of Mother’s two-front war. The former front, or remote government post assignments, is common and passable as a hurdle. Here is a reality so harsh and conceivable it could stand on its own to provide a dynamic to the hard knock life of some teachers. But to a Western audience, I suppose the latter (polygamy, justified by family planning ‘preferences’) has come to be so expected that Haifa couldn’t help but force it into her plot. It would prove to be not just one of many, but the first of all the major stereotypes you’ve known, and maybe hoped would be dispelled because you’re buying wholesale now. You’re at the warehouse, except here the stereotypes are neatly packaged so as not to confound viewer preconceptions — backgrounds largely formed secondhand. Oh, and beheadings were strangely cut from the script. Haha! So to a director citing neorealism as an influence, never mind the pockets of mindful viewers still pining for an authenticity of a particular locale. So, I say, way to win over the intelligent and discerning. I’ll list two examples of their kind. The most blatant borders on egregious territory was the child marriage simply for the sake of highlighting. There’s also the wake of a suicide bomber at a house Wadja and her boy friend walk past. They muse “seventy virgins,” and “seventy bikes.” The probability of all this occurring on the same middle class block is too harrowing not to distract the uninitiated viewer from the intended effect of laugh, cry then laugh some more.
At school, Wadjda herself has to fend off an overbearing principal Ms. Hussa as a morally ambiguous foil, but more on that later) as she carries out her plan to get money for the bike. In doing so she must deal with the sale of various artifacts deemed contraband because — hello — the educational system is an indoctrination tool at heart, and a learning environment a distant second. It just so happens that economics and entrepreneurship are not high on the list of subjects in Saudi Arabia, priorities one could argue exist and differ elsewhere. No less, it is an instrument of the state and Ms. Hussa is merely a cog serving its purposes, trying to do a job lest she be disciplined with a transfer to, oh, how about, where Mother works? Her depiction is deeply troubling as it was never the intention to cast her in a sympathetic light, knowing Haifa by that point. But at worst she came off as neutral enforcer of mores and norms instead of the uncompromising cunt she was played up to be at every turn. I didn’t buy that. She’s doing what any parent would do and expect of her — to act as a proxy parent in the absence of the real thing — with the difference being the not too subtle rumor of her affair hanging over her head, and Mother’s disposability as the sole partner. In essence, the disparity in privilege, and choice as a luxury accessible only to some, being a more apt antagonist here. Alas, villainy must always be personified when a more refined approach would have garnered a long-sustained poignancy.
Wadjda is a schmaltz laced affair, although one too poorly executed to firmly bump it up to the tier of a tearjerker, a dubious ambition if were the intention. It is one packed to the brim with gushy sentimentality designed solely to tug at one’s heart’s strings and uplift an oppressed demographic, one not much worse off than its opposite number. Don’t be a sucker; rights and privilege shouldn’t be confused for the same thing. When acknowledging how each society is ultimately a product of its state, it is hard not to see whose feet the blame ought to lay at. But the finger pointing response its author sought to illicit was made all the more typical when it dawned on me that we’d arrived at the big Fuck You moment you’d see in a self-affirming, underdog piece; Haifa was Wadjda. And just like Wadjda shoots herself in the foot during the award presentation for the recitation contest by declaring what she would buy with the money, so does Haifa undermine herself in straddling the contradictions between tribute and veiled dissent in a moment sure to go over everyone’s head due to language. But all along, we’d been building toward two moments. Calling the principal a whore in front of the whole school. And riding that bike into the credit roll. Wadjda’s barely concealed raison d’être. And much like South Africa’s coming out party in hosting the first World Cup for a continent, Wadjda was received with a congratulatory welcome and plaudits so kneejerk they’re blinded with the film’s symbolic meaning for a nation averse to change and too busy safeguarding its coffers to give a fuck about cultivating the arts and humanities. And yet the world applauded. At least no one said Bafana Bafana had an impressive run on the field.