Haifaa Al-Mansour made her directorial debut in the 2012 film WADJDA, which chronicles the pursuit of a young Saudi girl who wishes to buy a bicycle. Al-Mansour brilliantly contrasts the modernity of the 21st century, with the traditional customs in an Islamic society. The film is full of contradictions; displaying an internal, private world of Muslim women, and the expectations in their external, public lives. Her protagonist, Wadjda, symbolizes youth, individuality, and progress. Her innocence harnesses a universal perspective of the first conscious achievements and disappointments of life.
The first shot immediately reveals Wadjda’s unique personality, as the camera tracks a row of identically bland-colored shoes belonging to her classmates. The sound-image relationship merges, as the audience hears the girls singing religious verses, and suddenly a pair of Converse sneakers enters the frame. If one should wish to stand out from the masses, or cannot help but stand out, isolation can be expected. Al-Mansour jump cuts from Wadjda’s shoes in the first tracking shot, to a shot of her squinting at the sun, wearing a thorn-like headband. Although a peculiar jump cut, one’s attention is drawn to this sudden isolation and lack of movement in the frame. This edit foreshadows the character’s quest. Wadjda wears a crown, symbolizing persecution. She stands amongst the crowd, and then alone, revealing the underdog story that is to unfold.
In a society that values the community over the individual, the theme of anonymity can be perceived as an easy route for a filmmaker, however Al-Mansour infuses a creative perspective to this theme by confidently utilizing the power of visual communication.
Through cinematic perspective, Al-Mansour portrays feelings of anonymity by constantly placing her protagonist in the frame of wide-angle shots, creating a juxtaposition of the individual, to that of the vast and sparse suburbs of Riyadh. Inclusion of geometric design and architecture, also utilizes the space by incorporating frames within frames, such as a window to a door, to reveal the complexity and layers of this seemingly black and white, right and wrong, tightly structured culture. Her sense of vastness can be comparable to Michelangelo Antonioni’s THE PASSENGER, in which he contrasts this anonymous protagonist, with the emptiness of a trumping desert. Her approach in distancing the camera, and using wide-angle shots in exterior landscapes could be attributed to the strict censorship laws in Saudi Arabia. Nonetheless, Al-Mansour uses these restrictions to her advantage, adding much more dimension to the film, and strengthening her theme of individuality versus anonymity through her cinematic control.
Even the instances with the repeating yellow color pattern, such as the walls in Wadjda’s bedroom, the building she looks up to with the thorn-like headband, and the first image of her mother in a yellow dress, are symbolic of light and reason, even wisdom; however can also symbolize persecution and betrayal. The color scheme adds to her protagonist’s journey. Consistently dressing the men and young boys in all-white robes, and the women and girls in all black, creates a popping effect against the dryness of the architecture and landscape, enhancing the little movement in the frame during exterior shots. The black and white also symbolizes a paradox; darkness versus light; evil versus good; unfaithful versus virtuous. The headmistress at the girls’ school preaches “That a woman’s voice is taboo”, or in other words, women represent something evil, or when the students pray together at school, she advises the girls to stand close together; “Don’t leave any room for the devil”, as if the girls are susceptible. Even at the shopping mall, the stark whiteness of the linoleum floors versus the black robes of the Muslim women create a popping effect; a juxtaposition of modernity in the consumer world; representation of progress, and that of the darkness of the robed women; remnants of the past, and an old world.
There is also a theme of guilt that underlies the entire story, and is synonymous with religion, and controversially with women. While less noticeable, this theme is ultimately the most intriguing in the film. Guilt forms oppression, sets limitations, and results in halting varieties of perspectives that would otherwise insight progress. One cannot help but notice the overwhelming human rights statements being made within this film. Al-Mansour handles this topic delicately, not vehemently, and through child’s eyes, that advantageously never allow the film to come off in a critical manner. Rather it is the innocence of the observations that ultimately encourages the viewer to take on a child-like role as well.
Stylistically compared to that of the Italian neorealists, WADJDA is the first feature –length film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, as well as by the first female-Saudi director. Al-Mansour bravely faces oppression of freedom of speech and expression that still exists within the country. Saudi Arabia has come a long way from the 1980s, when movie theaters were banned. However, while theaters have become more liberalized to encourage the development of Saudi cinema, strict censorship laws continue to limit visual expression due to the government’s fear of publicly displayed taboos.
Renowned international distribution companies picked up WADJDA after premiering at the Venice Film Festival. The film itself is a contradiction; a comparison of the past to the present, representing progress within the country over the past two decades. “That a women’s voice is taboo”, should be reason alone to see this film. What does she have to say? The beauty lies in how she says it.