By Christopher Redmond

Mailed on November 05, 2013

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Dear Abdulaziz Abdalnorr
Costume Driver

Dear Abdulaziz,

You Saudis sure take fashion seriously. A whole driver dedicated just to transporting costumes? Somehow I don't think it was due to an abundance of wardrobe choices or inefficient planning. More likely it was a result of cultural customs, and was perhaps even a precaution for personal safety. This, after all, is the first feature film ever made entirely in Saudi Arabia. Ever. And it's pretty darn good to boot.

Wardrobe is part of what makes the film so special. It's right there in the first shot: a close-up of a young girl's feet, the frills on her white socks standing in stark contrast to the black robe draped over them. With this, we get a glimpse of the person obscured underneath--or, at least, of their personality. Wadjda's titular character (Waad Mohammed) fully embraces these narrow limits of personal expression, donning a pair of boyish high-tops with purple laces and rolled up jeans. She's 11-years-old, a tomboy and a rebel living in an orthodox Muslim society that frowns on women doing pretty much anything independent, including riding a bicycle--which is Wadjda's dream.

Writer and director Haifa Al-Mansour turns this desire into a beautifully simple and ironic plot: Wadjda wants to win a Quran recital competition at school so that she can use the prize money to buy a bike. Only problem is, she's too optimistic to veil her ambitions from the zealots in her life. And she's not alone.

Colorful hair berets and painted toenails are considered acts of defiance that get the girls at Wadjda's school in hot water. Barbie dolls are sold in full burqas. And if you look closely in the background of the mall scene, even the exposed legs, arms and neck lines of the models in American clothing posters are censored. Repression is everywhere. Women, we see, are forced to scurry like mice when men pass by in the street, or hide in the schoolyard if they find themselves suddenly in view of men on a neighbouring rooftop. From what I've read, this even applied to the director herself, who was not allowed on the streets "directing" actors; she had to work by walkie-talkie because women can't be seen telling men what to do.

No wonder the costumes had to be separated.

The film is endlessly fascinating. A pleasure to watch. The performances are perfectly convincing, but there's just as much story being told in the surroundings as there is in the plot itself. Your costumes certainly won't get any notice come Oscar season, but I couldn't take my eyes off them.



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