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On Movies: 'Wadjda' and a bicycle showcase Saudi repression

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The opening shot of "Wadjda" is, like the movie as a whole, simple but effective, funny but serious. We see shoes, the toes peeking out from beneath the long, dark robes worn by a group of Saudi Arabian schoolgirls. There are several dozen girls, and several dozen pairs of shoes, and all the shoes are virtually identical -- plain black slippers. Then comes a surprise -- a pair of high-top purple-laced canvas sneakers, Chuck Taylor style.

The wearer of the anti-establishment sneakers, a feisty middle-class girl of about 10, is named Wadjda, and she is played in the movie that bears her name with remarkable sensitivity to nuance by young Waad Muhammed. Wadjda is bright and inquisitive and a bit rebellious, but she mainly wants to have fun.

She is secret friends with a boy about her age, and he rides around their neighborhood on an old bicycle. She sees no reason she can't do the same, even though Saudi Arabian society frowns on girls riding bicycles. The bicycle, like the purple-laced shoes, symbolizes a freedom that Wadjda yearns for, but not in a heavy-handed or artificial way. A bicycle and sneakers are real sources of freedom, not just symbols of it.

Wadjda spots a bicycle she likes in a shop, and she talks the reluctant shop owner into holding it for her while she tries to come up with the money. She decides to enter a competition that awards a cash prize to the girl who best memorizes and recites passages from the Koran. Ironically, to win a taste of freedom, she must immerse herself even more deeply in the world of submission that surrounds her. The movie is, on one level, a startling portrait of just how much a conservative view of religion dominates every phase of Saudi life.

At least on the surface.

The hypocrisy of the society Wadjda lives in is personified by the outwardly strict, sour-faced principal who is always getting on the girl's case for minor disciplinary transgressions. The principal's proper floor-length attire hides stiletto heels, and she is said to be having a scandalous affair. Perhaps she is making up for the lack of a bicycle as a child.

While "Wadjda" is lighthearted and engaging, it uses both comedy and drama to highlight the plight of women in Saudi Arabia, covered in cloth from head to toe when they go outside of the home, treated as possessions by the men in their lives. Wadjda's mother is helplessly sympathetic to her daughter's energetic rejection of a subservient female role, but at the same time the mother is undergoing a cruel example of that male domination. Wadjda's father is seldom at home. He has grown tired of her mother and seems bent on acquiring a second wife, a younger woman.

"Wadjda" is the first feature to be made by a Saudi Arabian woman. The director is Haifaa Al Mansour, who was educated at the American University in Cairo and studied film in Sydney. She has a clean, simple directing style that fits the material, and the film is a delight, shaped not by doctrine but by real human events.

It was filmed in a suburb of Riyadh, although in more conservative areas Al Mansour sometimes had to direct from the production van so she would not be seen working with men on the street. The producers showed it at a few international festivals, and it won some prizes, which may have helped its status back home. Now, it has been selected by the Saudi official film board as that country's Oscar nominee for the best foreign language film of the year.

It has even been approved for showing in Saudi Arabia -- in the privacy of the home. Movie theaters are forbidden in Saudi Arabia.

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