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'Wadjda' offers an intimate look at Saudi Arabia

By Josh Terry

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, Oct. 4 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

From left, Reem Abdullah as Mother, Sultan Al Assaf as Father and Waad Mohammed as Wadjda.

Tobias Kownatzki

"Wadjda" is a simple story made complicated by the culture from which it springs. It is about a preteen girl (Wadjda, played by Waad Mohammed) who wants to buy a bicycle. But Wadjda lives in Saudi Arabia, and her parents are very clear on one item: Girls don't ride bicycles.

Her quest for two-wheeled freedom is just the latest time Wadjda has strained against the mores of her culture. She is chastised at school for failing to arrive wearing the proper head covering. In her spare time, she listens to top 40 American pop music. And while the rest of her schoolmates wear conservative black shoes, Wadjda opts for Converse All-Stars with purple laces. In expression and in behavior, Wadjda is a walking metaphor for the influence of the West on Muslim culture.

Of course, money is still an imposing obstacle to Wadjda's bicycle dreams. So when fate throws an opportunity her way — a school-sponsored Koran recitation competition that offers enough prize money to buy her bike — her convictions and her culture come into conflict in a way they never have before. Now her struggle is personified in the character of Ms. Hussa (Ahd), the strict schoolmaster who holds the key to her happiness.

Underscoring Wadjda's plight is the much more serious struggle her mother (played by Reem Abdullah) is facing. She may not approve of her daughter's aspirations, but she is no stranger to her frustrations. Wadjda is her only child, and since medical issues prevent her from having more children, her husband is considering the idea of taking another wife who can bear him a son. Abdullah's sympathetic performance is a subplot to the primary narrative of "Wadjda," but it is its most moving element.

It is no surprise to see the female perspective mined so deliberately. "Wadjda" was written and directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, identified by imdb.com as "the first female figure in Saudi Arabia." Still, if "Wadjda" is a statement for women's rights — and it's hard to read the film any other way — it is a statement that is handled with grace.

While the storylines in Wadjda are compelling, the most interesting element of the film — at least to someone outside Saudi Arabia — is observing the subtle and sometimes garish ways that Western culture infiltrates the lives of Wadjda and those around her throughout the film. Day-to-day clothing fuses traditional garb with blue jeans, homes in ancient neighborhoods are equipped with flat-screen TVs and, at one point, the audience does a double-take when Wadjda makes a casual reference to "The Matrix."

For years now, most Americans (author included) have received their cinematic exposure to the Middle East through films about military actions; even "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol" cast a powerful Hollywood sheen over its exciting Dubai sequence. But "Wadjda" gives Westerners an opportunity to see day-to-day life, and it is a fascinating view.

"Wadjda" is rated PG for mild adult themes. It is presented in Arabic with English subtitles.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on the "KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English Composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at www.woundedmosquito.com.

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