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Movies, dining and things to do / Spokane and North Idaho

‘Wadjda’ is a touching bit of film history

If you want to experience a bit of cinema history, while at the same time enjoying a touching little movie, take in "Wadjda," which is playing at the Magic Lantern Theater. Following is the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

If someone says Saudi Arabia, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Sand? Oil? T.E. Lawrence? Islamic religious police? All good choices, I assure you. One word that likely doesn’t come to mind is cinema. And for good reason, seeing as the Kingdom doesn’t have any movie-houses.

But that obstacle didn’t stop a Saudi filmmaker named Haifaa al-Mansour from writing and directing a movie that is akin to what D.W. Griffith did for the United States. Not only is al-Mansour’s film being called Saudi Arabia’s first feature film, but it is, in fact, the country’s first full-length feature to be written and directed … by a woman.

Titled “Wadjda,” which is the name of the film’s main character, al-Mansour’s movie tells the story of a 10-year-old girl who, to Western eyes at least, is a rebel with a cause. Wadjda lives with her mother. And although dad does visit, those occasions seem to occur rarely. This is, at least in part, because Wadjda’s mother cannot have any more children and so cannot give Wadjda’s father the son he and his family want.

Wadjda isn’t exactly oblivious to the family tensions. But her dad does show her affection. And besides, she has other concerns. Such as feeling the need to confront her mother’s driver, a man who rudely criticizes his women clients. Or recording mixed-tapes of the forbidden rock music she listens to incessantly. Or making colorful bracelets that she and some of her fellow students wear under their all-black robes. Or, most important, disappointing – again – her school principal, a Maleficent-type beauty whose job it is to make her charges into good little female Arabic automatons, and who takes a particular interest in taming our rebellious protagonist.

But when writer-director al-Mansour’s movie opens, Wadjda’s biggest desire concerns a beauty of a bicycle – a girl’s bicycle, I might add – that shows up one day in a shop near her home. No girl she knows rides a bike; only boys do, including her friend – and admirer – Abdullah. But that doesn’t stop Wadjda. And neither does the bike’s 800-riyal price tag (a little more than $200 U.S.). Especially after the distinctly areligious Wadjda discovers that her school is holding a contest involving the Koran. First prize: 800 riyals.

You can guess what happens next. To a U.S. audience, “Wadjda” doesn’t offer a surfeit of originality. And its production values are fairly rough. But, then, “Wadjda” is al-Mansour’s first feature. And, because she – who now lives in Bahrain – chose to shoot in Saudi Arabia, she was forced to adopt near-guerrilla-filmmaking techniques. Example: Because it’s unacceptable for Saudi women to give men orders, during shooting al-Mansour would monitor production from inside a parked van – providing direction to her crew through walkie-talkies.

Besides, “Wadjda’s” better qualities far outweigh its rough edges. Waad Mohammed, who plays the title character, is particularly good, especially in scenes where Wadjda – like al-Mansour herself – tries to find ways to circumvent rules she treats as less oppressive than merely inconvenient.

That attitude is never better portrayed than in the film’s final scene, when Wadjda – both literally and figuratively – approaches a crossroads. What will happen next? Who can say? It’s not cinema’s role to provide an answer. That’s a job … for history.

Note: In the review that I recorded for SPR, I reversed the initials of D.W. Griffith's name. Totally my bad.