The dubious eligibility process for foreign language films at the Academy Awards allows a singular representative of a nation’s entire output. For the first time ever, Saudi Arabia has entered the crowded field of 76, with their submission being Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Wadjda. The entry is a telling one, both in the decision to select the work of a female director and the telltale cultural worldview that is adopted within the film’s narrative. Telling the story of a precocious young girl and her journey in obtaining a bicycle, Al-Mansour’s picture is one that rejects the cultural milieu of its setting while adopting a different social perspective that falls more in line with the narrative conceits of Western filmmaking.
Whether it be the socially cognizant (Bicycle Thieves), emotionally exacting (The Kid with the Bike) or viscerally engaging (Premium Rush), a cinematic soft spot of mine tends to be pictures that embrace the liberating aspects of a bike. Yet with Wadjda, the on-the-noseness of its premise - of a girl attempting to combat male hegemony by embracing a preconceived masculine activity (the act of riding a bike) - never gives way for insight or even an emotional uptick.
The problem stems from a divide in the picture’s rhetoric. One direction, in the film’s narrative, points toward embracing rambunctiousness and deviating from normative behavior. Yet Al-Mansour’s formalism trades in conventional technique, with little in the way of personality contributing to the film’s compositions. Wadjda from its opening frame looks to convey its titular character as one of such creative dissonance. With the stuffy conformity of her peers, Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) sticks out for wearing her Converse, her audacity to question the social structure and male-dominated notions of authority, and even embrace capitalism as a virtue over the religiosity that sweeps the land. These elements are unfortunately realized in the most plain and matter-of-fact way, without a hint of subtext added to truly understand their cultural impact.
In essence, Al-Mansour plays it safe, curbing interpretation for a more in-your-face approach. While not averse to plain-speaking and clearly defined sociological insights, Wadjda quite literally has nothing for me to hold onto. The visual palette is a dull one. The characters outside of the central character are too ill-defined to adequately cushion the already thin plot. Events occur as a means to propel a dawdling narrative. Conceivably, the film could’ve been cut down from its current 90-minute runtime to that of a short film while keeping its sociological insights intact.
Saudi Arabia’s cinematic output has been limited, almost nonexistent prior to Wadjda. With no cinema throughout the land, the industry is one that is very much in its infancy. Wadjda is a landmark picture in its own right, being the publicized first film produced in the land (a handful of pictures have been produced though none with the distribution that Wadjda has received). But like any developing venture, this infancy stage is one that will require experience to truly grow. Baby steps, indeed.