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Inspired Determination

‘Wadjda’ offers windows into Saudi (and American) life

Darleen Ortega | 10/22/2013, 4:17 p.m.
Our 'Opinionated Judge' reviews a film with a rare window into everyday life for Saudi women and girls
Waad Mohammed (right) plays a Saudi girl who wants a bicycle to race her young male friend in the film ‘Wadjda,’ a story that gives us a rare window into everyday life for women and girls in Saudi Arabia.

Wadjda views the many restrictions that characterize her life with disdain typical of many adolescents. When her mother lectures her, she turns up her American music; and when instructed by her principal to replace her high-top Converse with the more feminine all-black shoes worn by her classmates, she responds by coloring the white portions of her shoes with a black marker.

The willfulness evident in Wadjda’s determination to be herself, makes her stand-out among her classmates, whose rebellions are more contained. In such a restrictive system, only such outliers have any real shot at achieving anything beyond the limits of what society expects from them.

Though perhaps not as apparent to us, the same is true in our culture too -- that is, only the most determined outlier thinkers are likely to achieve anything very different from our expectations of them.

In Saudi culture, the image of a girl on a bicycle is unthinkable, the achievement of that aspiration heroic. But listening to all of the ways that Wadjda's parents and teachers communicate to her what she cannot do brought to mind how a similar thing happens here to girls and women, or to other groups underrepresented in positions of influence.

Similarly, I found it instructive to reflect on the ways in which Wadjda's world communicates her value relative to men. In Saudi Arabia, the women are draped in so much black as to shield them almost entirely from view, while men wear white.

The enforcers in Wadjda's world are nearly all women, who constantly remind her of and model for her the responsibility to shield men from seeing her ("if you can see them, they can see you") or hearing her talk ("your voice is your nakedness.") Perhaps our ways of communicating our values and expectations to women and girls are more subtle, or perhaps we are less attuned to them.

Director Mansour has found a way to tell this story with lightness and subtlety, helped by the feisty spirit of a child. But don't let that lightness fool you (as it seems to have fooled at least one male critic) into thinking of this story as slight. Her heroine's relentlessness, though naive, is also canny.

Wadjda tumbles to a strategy for achieving that coveted bicycle (a Koran-reciting contest with a cash prize) that reflects her underestimation of the fervor behind the rules that confine her but also embodies just the sort of conviction that is necessary to surpass such boundaries. If you're open to it -- and if, like me, you sometimes feel a bit confined yourself -- you just might be inspired.

Darleen Ortega is a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals and the first woman of color to serve in that capacity. Her movie review column Opinionated Judge appears regularly in The Portland Observer. You can find her movie blog at opinionatedjudge.blogspot.com.