Sometimes I see a movie that astounds me with its humanity. I know some are being made, the trick is to find them. We found a rare gem, Wadjda, about an 11 year old girl who wanted a bicycle. It was made in Saudi Arabia by Haifaa al-Mansour, who wrote the script and directed it, the latter mostly from inside a van with walkie-talkies because by law she is not allowed to mingle publicly with men not related to her by blood or marriage. While one of the Saudi princes helped produce the film, she also sought the backing of a German production company that would help with distribution because there are no cinemas in Saudi Arabia. From this little information you can begin to understand the cultural frame wherein an 11 year old girl, Wadjda, wanting and working for a bicycle becomes a true-hearted tale of a rebellious and loving child traveling a rough path towards being a person with equal rights and standing, which in her culture is impossible. And yet she does it with a little help along the way.
Several themes in this blog come to relevance here, such as the dialectic between an individual’s creative license with cultural traditions and society’s conservative demands that individuals meet their responsibilities or the willing suspension of disbelief that enables our brains to see the truth in fiction or the empathy or lack thereof among the characters or even the symbol of that bicycle. Not to mention the power of art, when well done, to convey vital import and truth about life. From this you can begin to see I really liked this movie.
Wadjda is spunky; she is outspoken and questions the injustice of her world; she is entrepreneurial and independent; she is loving yet reserved and centered. The young actress here is brilliant as she portrays this character who does not easily fit into her culture. Truth be told, the culture would be the better if it accommodated her more readily. The writer-director is brilliant as she conveys the oppression of female persons in this culture and Wadjda’s struggle to assert her, dare I say ‘natural’, rights through a narrative of everyday life. This is no polemic; this is art and it is a powerful vision of humans as they struggle with life.
From my perspective I had no trouble getting into this movie; it was totally believable. What was unbelievable was how restrictive and life-reducing the constraints on females are. Really now, girls have to go inside from playing at school because workman on a nearby roof might look at them? Little moments, big import. There are males in the movie who appreciate Wadjda and quietly help her with her aspirations; there are females in the movie (well one actually and she is a hypocrite) who support Wadjda only as she comports herself according to the strict orthodoxy and push her down as soon as she asserts her curious aspirations. Most of the males are distant or disapproving and most of the females are nurturing. The movie ends with Wadjda contemplating the rest of her journey as a spunky girl in a barren landscape. I wish her well and hope for the best. My faith here is on the human spirit to transform society for the better and the power of art to make it so.
I know some Wadjda’s here. I am married delightfully to one who reminds me that she was also counseled to curb her activities as a girl to accommodate male misconduct, that her opportunities were restricted or made more difficult because of her gender, and that a woman recently walked for a few hours in New York City and recorded hundreds of catcalls. The struggle for gender equality is, for some historical reason, one for all of humanity. Is this biologically based? Well, our culture is a biological phenomenon but this inequality is not biologically necessary. Somewhere in the mists of time gender inequality became orthodox (and please tell me one more time so as I can understand why gender inequality should be religious orthodoxy?). Many such as John Stuart Mill in 1869 and Emmeline Pankhurst in the early 20th century have sought to clear the air and see a better day. Again, let us make it so.