22 March 2013
Trailer. The film was showing as part of the 2013 Human Rights Watch Film Festival.
The heroine's struggle against religious hypocrisy gets slightly sidelined by the simpler, vicarious intrest in her setting.
It seems likely a film evokes the sense of a specific place more vividly than other dramatic art forms, and that this evocation may at times be so vivid that it overrides the purely dramatic aspects of the work.
In visual arts, the setting can sometimes be more interesting than the specific art; with a film, the setting within the film itself can be more interesting than the drama.
This film was shot within Saudi Arabia, and much of its appeal is in representing that country and its culture, a form of filmic tourism I suppose.
I came away feeling I had been given an insight into the country, including such things as the colour of the sky, the feel of the streets, and so on. Some observations engaged my curiosity, my need to know more: yellow buses with ‘school bus’ written on them, in English.
The setting, the ‘local colour’, is especially misleading in a film, for it is to some extent an artifice of the filmmaker, much as the plot and drama is.
The plot here concerns a schoolgirl and her quest for a bicycle, most unlikely to be fulfilled given society’s disapproval. It’s an entertaining quest, and involves her learning to recite quranic verses for a school competition.
The climax, the successful recitation, is both beautiful oral poetry and ironic, for the recitation requires Wadjda to believe the verses ‘in her heart’, and the text is a marvellous denunciation of the religious hypocrisy that has prevented Wadjda from expressing herself, and which is likely to continue to oppress her, and her lone parent mother, for the rest of their lives.
The film slightly pulls back from the bleakness of my last sentence in its final scenes. I’m not sure the sense of hope is justified, especially as the film’s major villain is the school principal, a woman who has learned to use religion as a form of power, but who is nonetheless oppressed by it. This vivid hypocrite significantly tells Wadjda that they share a similar approach to life.
Presumably, Wadjda may still become the villain. Her other role models are limited, and hope alone is shown elsewhere in the film to be damaging (Wadjda’s mother, for example).
Despite its attempt at hope, in the end, the film is more powerful for discreetly showing us how hard the struggle against ingrained religious hypocrisy can be. In some ways it is fairly respectful of Saudi society, but it portrays an environment where hypocrisy and degradation can become institutionalised, meaning extremely difficult to dispel.
The film is shot in the ubiquitous docudrama style: intimate, naturalistic, with some languorous scenes interspersed with more rapid editing. The acting is thoroughly convincing.