Haifaa Al Mansour's Wadjda: State-of-the-art film or pro-Saudi propaganda?
H.G. Carrillo is the author of the excellent Loosing My Espanish, which is why I jumped at the chance to enroll in his Fiction Writing course at the George Washington University. On the first day of class, as I was looking through the syllabus, this caught my attention:
Artists, by virtue of placing pen to paper or paint to canvas, differentiate themselves from craftspersons in their acceptance of the responsibility for the creation of both problem and solution. The first line of a poem, the first notes in a score, the first sentence of even the shortest of narratives, establishes a contract between artist and audience in which the artist assumes the role of guide and arbiter of a fully realized, carefully hewed journey.
When analyzing any piece of art, a good place to start one’s inquiry is this “contract” between artist and audience. The “creation of both problem and solution” is the “project” that determines the parameters by which a work of art is measured. For example, one could posit that the “project” of Abdulrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt explores the effects of the discovery of oil—the destruction of existing modes of life, greed, exploitation, etc.—on a certain population. Or we could say that the project of “Liberals, but…,” an episode of the Saudi television program Tash Ma Tash, critiques so-called Saudi intellectuals, especially when their professed values clash with their interests. In short, any work of art establishes a project wherein the artist grapples with the set of problems she has set up. The way the artist executes this determines the success of the work.
Saudis, along with everyone else, have been hearing for months about Haifaa Al Mansour’s Wadjda, and about the Saudi government’s backing of the film. The end of 2013 marked the peak of the annual awards season. Critics assembled best-of-the-year lists, many of which featured Wadjda. It won several awards, such as the CinemAvvenire Award at the Venice Film Festival. It was named Best Foreign Language Film by the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. It was nominated for a BAFTA award. Whenever I hear about another award or read another rave review, I ask myself: Has Wadjda received universal acclaim because it is an exceptional work of art, where the director has successfully grappled with the problems she set up in her “project”? Or does it have more to do with the fact that this is the first film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, and, more importantly, that its director happens to be a Saudi woman?
In order to begin to answer this question, we must examine the film itself. What is the project of Wadjda? The opening scene is set in an all-girls school, where a group of female students—all wearing drab, dark uniforms—recite a hymn. The teacher turns on a recorder. A (male) voice sings the hymn while the students repeat the verses. The teacher pauses the tape and sternly instructs the girls to “stay in their places.” The camera focuses on the girls’ shoes—all black, plain and identical. They step aside to reveal Wadjda’s Converse All-Stars with purple laces, which mark her as different from the other girls. Wadjda, an exceptional Saudi female, locates a part of her body (her feet) where she can express her personality, individuality and independence. Two older girls walk by, carrying a globe. Smiling, Wadjda waves to them. The teacher scolds Wadjda and calls her to the front of the class. Although the teacher had glimpsed Wadjda’s gesture, the way the camera focuses on her purple laces suggests that her individuality, her willingness to break rank, is what draws the ire of the teacher, who demands that Wadjda recite the hymn from memory. She stutters. The teacher exclaims, “Since you refuse to speak up, you can leave.” Outside, the establishing shot is a close-up of Wadjda’s purple laces. We see Wadjda standing alone in front of the principal’s office, underneath a scorching sun. The sun’s rays reflect off the school’s metal fence, an image that evokes a prison.
Through this opening scene, director Haifaa Al Mansour establishes her project. She has illustrated how a Saudi female who dares to express herself in a way that does not conform to the norm will be censured, punished, and perhaps even expelled. The audience now prepares for a journey in which the director will act as guide and arbiter, where she will illustrate how and why Saudi women are repressed. But how “fully crafted” and “carefully hewed” is Al Mansour’s film? How did she approach the problems she presented in the opening scenes of Wadjda?
Fahad Al-Estaa gushed over Wadjda in the Saudi magazine The Majalla: “the script was lucid, with a good rhythm and smooth transitions from one scene to the next, which reflects the time and effort spent on a screenplay that took years to complete.” I am not sure what parameters Al-Estaa used in his estimation. Perhaps his judgment was affected by the film’s international success, because the plot is far from lucid. Events unfold as a series of non-sequiturs. This, in and of itself, is not necessarily a problem. Some stories need to be told in this way, as the non-linear narratives of Pulp Fiction or Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman demonstrate. Wadjda, however, is pretty linear. There is no artistic reason to justify this storytelling technique. Al Mansour apparently felt compelled to insert herself into the narrative and indulge in lengthy exposition about what she perceives to be the roots of women’s repression in Saudi Arabia: polygyny, child marriage, terrorists who commit violent acts in order to obtain seventy-two virgins (apparently, terrorists lack political motivation). And it is not like critics failed to notice these flaws.
Chris Hewitt of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, for example, calls the storytelling “clumsy.” Ignatiy Vishnevetsky writes in the A.V. Club that “discussions of child marriage and suicide bombing feel shoehorned in, as though Al-Mansour realized at the last minute that she’d finished the screenplay without mentioning either.” This is not to say that Wadjda has no redeeming qualities. For starters, Waad Mohammad, in the title role, gives a great performance. My point is, if Wadjda is a passable but ultimately forgettable film, why did it receive universal acclaim and win so many awards? Did critics fall in love with the film or the story behind it: A female director from repressive Saudi Arabia, living with her American husband in neighboring Bahrain, struggles—guerilla-style—to make a film in the streets of Riyadh which exposes a backward, uncivilized society. It seems to me that Wadjda’s reception reflects that old imperial dream, what Gayatri Spivak described as “white men saving brown women from brown men.”
Which brings us to the film’s most crucial failure. If Wadjda had merely been a middling film that managed to garner some international attention, I may have derived some satisfaction from the fact that a fellow Saudi had directed it. I am arguing, however, that it is far more insidious. When Haifaa Al Mansour afforded herself the freedom to insert herself into the film and make authorial interjections (in the form of non-sequiturs) to point out all the “root causes” of women’s repression in Saudi Arabia, she did nothing more than blame “society.” According to Wadjda, Saudi “society” is patriarchal, repressive, backward and sexist. What of the state? Does the Saudi state repress in Wadjda? No. The final scene illustrates how the Saudi state figures into the narrative. Once Wadjda rides the green (the national color) bicycle she had been dreaming of, we see a bus adorned with a large sticker.
The sticker displays the Saudi flag and images of the most senior state actors, along with a state slogan that roughly translates as “May the Glory of the Nation Endure.” I read this as an overt statement (in Arabic) of deference to the state, one I imagine must be lost on a Western audience. Wadjda and her bicycle pass by the bus. The camera lingers momentarily on this sticker before catching up with Wadjda, who has sped past her (male) friend and neighbor, Abdullah. Her ability to outmaneuver her male companion cements her status as an exceptional Saudi female. She stops at an intersection where the road meets a crowded street full of cars. Wadjda stops here and smiles. The next step, moving onto a highway with cars, is not an easy one. The exceptional Saudi female requires the help of the state—that benevolent, civilized, enlightened apparatus—to bypass the barbaric, patriarchal society.
If we agree that Wadjda set up a project that aims to explore women’s repression in Saudi Arabia, it becomes abundantly clear that the film has failed to address the problem honestly. In the aftermath of the attacks on Washington and New York on September 11, 2001, Lila Abu-Lughod was invited to appear on several television shows to discuss terrorism. Abu-Lughod, a professor of Anthropology and Women's and Gender Studies at Columbia University, was asked repeatedly and exclusively about the terrorists’ religious convictions: Does the Quran tell Muslims to kill non-Muslims? Why is Islam inherently violent? Does sexual repression produce terrorism? Abu-Lughod was taken aback, because terrorism is a political, not a cultural, phenomenon. She describes the experience in Do Muslim Women Need Saving? in which she proposes “writing against culture,” that is, writing in a way that exposes facile explanations of phenomena such as “patriarchy” that constantly resort to the “cultural” and elide the political.
Let us be clear: Al Mansour is not obligated to make an overtly political film simply because she is Saudi. As an artist, she put that responsibility on herself, through the project of her film. Nobody forced her to make a film that aimed to explore women’s repression in Saudi Arabia. In this context, eliding the political constitutes, paradoxically, a political act. It is not apolitical for Al Mansour to depict patriarchy as merely a product of society or culture. Once we affirm that Wadjda is about women’s repression in Saudi Arabia (and the director herself has opined that it is in interviews), it cannot escape being a political film. Its director’s choices merely determine what kind of political statement it makes.
It does not require extraordinary intelligence to conclude that the political statement the film makes is specious. I do not mean to minimize patriarchal social practices when I say that “society” does not wield the same power as the state. It cannot, however, discipline and punish like the state. Saudi “society” has not erected prisons and filled them with dissenters. If we are talking about women’s lack of mobility, it is not “society” that pulls women over and interrogates them when they attempt to drive. Neither does “society” have the power to issue permits to institutions like the Saudi Arabian Society for Culture and Arts (SASCA), which submitted Wadjda to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as a Saudi entry.
In A Most Masculine State, Madawi Al-Rasheed illustrates how, post-9/11, the Saudi state has resorted to celebrating “exceptional” Saudi women who managed to rise above society’s (not the state’s!) barbarism and patriarchy, because “the soft face of the cosmopolitan, sophisticated, and articulate woman was the best weapon the state could summon in its war not only against terrorism, but also against its demonization in the international community.”
Haifaa Al Mansour is one of these “exceptional” women who, as Al-Rasheed states, are willing to go along with the state’s agenda because “it is an irresistible opportunity to gain more rights and visibility.” Sultan Al-Bazei, head of SASCA, said as much when he stated that “the authorities have given the film their blessing and fully support it.” So let us gush over this film, which depicts women’s repression in Saudi Arabia as a purely social/cultural issue that has nothing to do with authoritarian rule. Let us applaud this brave artist, this cosmopolitan, sophisticated, articulate, exceptional Saudi woman, who received the full support of the authorities and then thanked His Royal Highness Prince Al-Waleed ibn Talal in the credits. She deserves a boatload of BAFTAs. Haifaa Al Mansour truly is the best weapon.
This article was originally published in Jadaliyya.