As firm of a believer as I am in the transformative power of cinema, I do not believe any film contains some kind of magical power that can rid the world of hatred and bigotry. What they can do, however, is gently nudge the needle of individual opinion in the way empathy and humanity. The act of experiencing a narrative arc through the perspective of someone different can open new insights into a world different from our own.
I think this is especially important now when the qualities of compassion and cultural awareness feel scarce, if not entirely imperiled. As the United States flirts with cutting off connections to the Muslim world, we should know what that world looks like from something other than the limited imaginations of the mass media gatekeepers. These countries contain people like us, living their lives under entirely different circumstances but grappling with a sense of self and their place within society.
Haifaa Al Mansour’s “Wadjda,” my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” gives us a glance into a space likely encountered by very few American viewers: a young Saudi Arabian girl. If a film’s background can attest to authenticity, then it marks the first time a Saudi female has directed a feature film. (It’s also the first feature shot entirely in Saudi Arabia.) Fittingly, Al Mansour uses the opportunity to put a plucky protagonist front and center with her titular character. Wadjda yearns to buy a bicycle but encounters both person financial difficulties and open resistance from community members that frown upon her desire to partake in a traditionally masculine activity.
Saudi Arabia, like most majority Muslim nations, abides by a patriarchal rule of order. Thus, many portrayals of women in narratives surrounding these regions treat them as silent companions or tacit witnesses. If they receive personhood in the narrative, they rarely possess agency. (To be clear, these are generalizations with plenty of exceptions. Asghar Farhadi, for starters.) Very few men populate “Wadjda,” yet their presence never seems far away. Even in spaces carved out for women, anxiety over what males might see or think pervades the atmosphere.
This environment helps explain Wadjda’s rebellious streak. She yearns for more than a private life away from the gaze of men, as her school and home provide. She wants the freedom to follow her heart and the kind impulses that spring from it, social norms and constructed boundaries be damned. We root for her free expression, not against her culture’s values – though Wadjda and Al Mansour have the real task of reconciling the two in their own lives.