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An astounding feat

OUT NOW! Das Mädchen Wadjda is a remarkable film that pushes boundaries.

Directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, “Das Mädchen Wadjda” is a remarkable film on several fronts.

Some films are remarkable for the mere fact of getting made: Das Mädchen Wadjda (regrettably showing only in a synchronized German version) is such a film. Co-produced by Saudi Arabia and made by a Saudi female director (who studied in Cairo and Syney), the way it pushes the envelope of what is artistically, politically, ethically acceptable in one of the strictest Islamic states is both astonishing and encouraging. The fact that it also directly confronts the role of women in Saudi Arabia and does so with performances which, if ever so slightly labored, still bear critical scrutiny make this an absolute must see.

As the only schoolgirl in sneakers in an otherwise uniformly shod assembly of conformist girls, Wadjda’s life behind the high walls of single-sex education is dominated, and not in a good way, by an authoritarian, passive-aggressively repressed headmistress. Like most of her colleagues, she pours her Rubenesque forms into tight trousers and blouses but keeps a wary eye on girls painting their toenails or engaging in other nefarious activities. The ambiguity that pervades this atmosphere is perpetuated at home, where Wadjda’s educated, working mother leaves the house in full chadri (with only the eyes showing) to be chauffeured to work by a sullen, unskilled driver on whom, since women cannot drive in Saudi Arabia, she is utterly dependent. With only one female child to her name, she must also fear the acquisition, on her husband’s part, of wife number two to increase the chances of male succession.

Caught in the cross currents of these seemingly inviolate structures, Wadjda has limited her ambitions to the purchase of a bicycle on which to race her young friend Abdullah. Signifying freedom at various levels, it seems an unattainable goal, both financially and as an agent of emancipation. Then a Koran competition is announced at school. With 1000 riyal flagged as prize money, Wadjda’s life takes on new purpose.   

Filmed in the pale, arid tones of a desert town, with hot and windy streets through which black-garmented females skirt the shadows and only white-vested boys seem to have any fun, Das Mädchen Wadjda wisely takes it’s time in setting up the storyline, allowing a largely female cast to come into its own with nuanced portrayals of stagnation and frustration. Waad Mohammed’s main protagonist is feisty without being stupid, engaging but not cute, smart but not at the expense of realism: basically, a street-wise kid who’s happiest on the street where she can play both ends against the middle. Her quiet profile, facing the desert beyond the petrodollar motorway in the final shot, is a triumph of cinematographic understatement: calmly exhilarated by possibility.

Das Mädchen Wadjda | Directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour (Saudi Arabia, Germany 2012). Starts September 5