Wadjda looks like a great movie. This is a delicate subject and aside from a college thesis I did on representations of Muslims in British media, I can’t say that I have a fully rounded or informed understanding of Saudi Arabian culture. I can’t stress enough how important this film will be because it is told by a woman, it is about a girl, because it takes place in Saudi Arabi and because filmmaker, Haifaa Al-Mansour is Saudi Arabian herself.
The film is about Wadjda, a 10-year-old girl, who just wants to ride a freaking bike. Wadjda is sassy and does not care about the status quo! She enters a Koran memorization contest to win money to purchase the bike of her dreams. The story sounds simple but from the trailer you can see that it’s more than just a cute movie. The film, the first ever film to be shot in Saudi Arabia and directed by a woman, is very much about women and the expectations imposed on them in a more rigid society than the one we are used to in 2013 America.
The movie was not easy to film either. Saudi law prevents women and men from speaking in public, director Haifaa Al-Mansour said, “It was a major obstacle to go out in the street and talk to my actors.” The movie won’t even be shown in Saudi Arabia because movie theaters are illegal. Not to mention it is culturally unacceptable for women to be filmed on camera.
Haifaa Al-Mansour added, “Saudi Arabia is opening up. I’m not saying it’s heaven, but we saw Saudi sending women to the Olympics. There is an opportunity now for women to pursue their dreams.” I think it’s evident that this movie will be culturally groundbreaking not just for the Saudis who will be able to see the film on DVD but for our understanding of Saudi Arabia as Westerners.
I am excited to see this film because any news we get about Saudi Arabia or anyplace in the Middle or Far East, is filtered through a Western perspective. Many people, of all walks of life, make the mistake of seeing something that is different from them then trying to make sense of it on their terms. Remember when Reddit users tried to call a Sihk woman ugly because she had “too much” body hair, only to get righteously pwned when she responded with a sincere explanation about how her facial hair was an expression of her religion?
The trouble with trying to rationalize the behavior of another culture, without all the info, is that not every culture functions on the same terms, has the same traditions, the same approach to life and the same morality. To understand another culture, I believe, you’d have to directly speak and interact with many, many people of that culture. Cultural diffusion between the West and East has always been difficult because Western representations of the East have always been questionable. The news often portrays the Middle East as a war torn place where misogynic men are constantly brutalizing their women and people are commodified into mere victims of oppression, while terrorist groups plot against us!
I know that there is conflict, there is inherent sexism in eastern cultures (as there is in every culture), that there is perhaps, more violence and poverty in some of those cultures. However, I know that these things do not wholly define individual people, that people have good days and bad ones, happy ones and sad ones, that the people in every country have rich inner lives, in spite of external circumstances. I refuse to see any culture as a group of victims, to do that is to seize their autonomy and agency and impose the idea that people need to be saved and lack the competence to save themselves.
Progress is something we fight for each day in the United States and it is so diminishing to presume that the people of Saudi Arabia, that the women there especially, are not active participants in that fight as well. /end of rant
Jezebel points out that Wadjda opened in Cannes, the Venice Film Festival, the Tribeca Film Festival and has won numerous awards. It is also noted that women were only recently allowed to ride bikes in Saudi Arabia.
Watch an interview with Haifaa Al-Mansour below.