Earlier this week on the Indiewire movie news site, editor/critic Sam Adams surveyed numerous writers (myself included) about whether it was a good idea, or even avoidable, to judge a film based in part on what he called "off-camera info." Should the circumstances of a film's production, or the real-life behavior of an actor or actress, be allowed to affect our evaluation of a piece of cinema? Or should we do everything we can to restrict our judgments to that thing on the screen, from beginning to end?
Generally speaking, this extra-textual information creeps in when it's inclined to bias us against the film in question. Adams posed the query in relation to the volley of nasty accusations involving the upcoming film Blue is the Warmest Color, between the director and the actresses as well as members of some French craft unions. But we can cite numerous other examples. Did critics and audiences view John Carter through the lens of incessant Hollywood insider reports of its bloated budget? Was it possible to evaluate Mel Gibson's tortured performance in The Beaver or, more recently, Lindsay Lohan's in The Canyons, apart from the actors' real-life struggles? Professional critics have to try, but in the end, who's to say? We can't bracket out all knowledge of reality, and it's uncertain that we should.
This brings us to the Saudi Arabian film Wadjda, by first-time filmmaker Haifaa al-Monsour. In radical contrast to all of the above examples, where outside information might bias us against the film, the backstory of Wadjda is so truly heroic, and dovetails so completely with pivotal world events, that we might be inclined to view the film more positively. Although Saudi Arabia is one of the richest countries in the world, its film industry is less than a decade old, and Wadjda is the first Saudi film directed by a woman. Since Saudi society observes some of the strictest gender segregation anywhere in the Arab world (which is one of the key themes of the film itself), al-Monsour was frequently unable to commingle on the streets of Riyadh with her mostly German, mostly male crew. So she directed all of the exterior shots by remote control, speaking to her crew by radio from inside a van.
According to al-Monsour's interview with the Financial Times, this tedious process resulted in a five-year shoot for what is, finally, a very simple character study. Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is 11, and a bit unruly at school. In this context, that means wearing black Converse hightops instead of Mary Janes like all the other girls. She also has something in common with the young girls of Blue is the Warmest Color, in that she has a dangerous, forbidden desire. She wants something that would shake the very foundation of her society's notion of gender-appropriate behavior. She wants to ride a bicycle.
Even though her mother (Reem Abdullah) forcefully dissuades her, we eventually learn that there is a big difference between the strictures of the domestic sphere and those outside, especially in school. Wadjda's mom struggles for her own independence, but also grapples with the fact that she is losing Wadjda's dad (Sultan Al Assaf) to another wife. The true enforcer of Saudi morality is the head of school, Ms. Hussa (Ahd Kamel), who is cruel but never caricatured as a villain exactly. Instead, al-Monsour shows her to be the flipside of Wadjda's mother and an object of pity, someone so fearful of Saudi patriarchy that she has chosen to embody it more forcefully than any man would under the circumstances — a tragic kapo.
The narrative of Wadjda is essentially a series of obstacles and clever solutions, the path of an intelligent and resourceful girl who, in the end, finds that she has to rely on the strength of other women, and the possible paths of new traditions, rather than brash iconoclasm. In a way, this mirrors al-Monsour's filmmaking, which borrows liberally from the picaresque realism of Iranian cinema but is not afraid to soften its hard edges in favor of a hopeful humanism. Given that al-Monsour is not only instilling a feminist message but also building a national cinematic tradition, this seems a fair place to start.
And so we return to the question of judgment. There is no getting around the fact that Wadjda is a landmark for women in Saudi Arabia, and that it was made in the face of challenges that are downright absurd. What's more, it arrives on Western screens at precisely the moment when Saudi women are taking to the streets of Riyadh in coordinated civil disobedience, violating the national/religious ban against women driving cars. Wadjda is a watershed film at a watershed moment. Do we need to disregard this? Fortunately, it doesn't matter. What's on screen is exceptional enough that it stands on its own merit.