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Wadjda Blu-ray + DVD Review

Wadjda (2013) movie poster Wadjda

US Theatrical Release: September 13, 2013 / Running Time: 97 Minutes / Rating: PG

Writer/Director: Haifaa Al Mansour

Cast: Reem Abdullah (Mother), Waad Mohammed (Wadjda Al Saffan), Abdullrahman Al Gohani (Abdullah), Ahd (Ms. Hussa), Sultan Al Assaf (Father), Alanoud Sajini (Faten Khaled), Rafa Al Sanea (Fatima Abdullah), Dana Abdullilah (Salma Abdel Azziz), Rehab Ahmed (Noura Saleh), Nouf Saad (Koran Teacher), Ibrahim Almozael (Toy Shop Owner), Mohammed Zahir (Iqbal - the Driver), Sara Aljaber (Leila), Noura Faisal (Abeer)

Buy Wadjda from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + DVD Instant Video

Film production is a relatively novel concept in Saudi Arabia. The English Wikipedia's list of Saudi Arabian films consists of a grand total of nine titles and claims the industry took off in 2006. Among the nine is Wadjda,
the first feature shot entirely in the Middle Eastern nation. Many expected the drama, one of 2013's most acclaimed imports and the first Saudi submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, to compete for that Oscar, but it surprisingly failed to make even the shortlist of nine. That doesn't change the fact that this charming movie has won over virtually all who have seen it, earning positive marks from all but a single critic on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic.

The title refers to Wadjda Al Saffan (Waad Mohammed), the film's protagonist, a Saudi girl around ten years old. Wadjda seems to be a Western girl at heart, which is not okay in her restrictive country. She makes mix tapes of American pop music and stealthily sells football club bracelets to classmates at her all-girls school. She also repeatedly gets in trouble for minor things with stern principal Ms. Hussa (Ahd), who is not amused by her ways.

Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) lights up at the sight of a shop's green bicycle in the 2013 Saudi Arabian film "Wadjda."

Wadjda sets her sights on a green bicycle for sale. She asks the market toy shop vendor, who's selling it for 800 riyals, to set it aside for her. She raises some money with odd jobs and by raising the price of her bracelets. But it's still out of reach and neither of her parents is going to buy it for her. If you ride a bike, you can't have children, her mother (Reem Abdullah) tells her.

Mom is not getting along well with Wadjda's easygoing video gamer father (Sultan Al Assaf), whom she fears is going to take a second wife. Money is a concern for the family, especially after their immigrant driver quits (women aren't allowed to drive or take public transportation there).

Meanwhile, Wadjda thinks she's got the perfect way to afford the bike. She joins her school's religious club in time to participate in a Quran competition, which promises the winner a prize of 1,000 riyals (the equivalent of around $265 US). Wadjda buys herself a Quran video game and takes the preparation seriously, brushing up on her knowledge and practicing recitations.

Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) and her mother (Reem Abdullah) stick together through some tough times. Nasty headmistress Ms. Hussa (Ahd) sees a lot of her younger self in Wadjda, which apparently isn't a good thing.

Wadjda offers a fascinating look at modern living in a geographically and culturally distant land. The Saudi's archaic prevailing attitudes towards sex and the sexes are eye-opening.
Girls are married off at a young age. Men can have multiple wives. The sight of men working on a roof requires girls to go inside, where the extreme dress code barely relaxes.

Writer/director Haifaa Al Mansour is a pioneer, her IMDb biography proclaiming her the first female filmmaker in Saudi Arabia. The 39-year-old newcomer seems pretty overtly critical of her culture's accepted way of life, as one senses a Wadjda inside her. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the local response to her debut has been divided. Movie theaters are banned in Saudi Arabia and considered impure. Exposed to the art through home video and education, Al Mansour reveals herself to be incredibly comfortable with the medium's storytelling capabilities.

Wadjda feels like a live-action version of a Hayao Miyazaki coming-of-age drama. Though there are no fantastical elements, there is appealing candor to the presentation of family life through the eyes of a curious, adventurous young heroine. Much of the film resonates because of the vast chasm between our mores and those on display. The stifling atmosphere is heart-breaking at times, but Wadjda remains inspiringly unfazed by it, taking in stride the teasings of her friends and peers while remaining committed to her end goal.

In 87 North American theaters, Wadjda grossed about as much as Kristen Wiig's Girl Most Likely did in 351. While neither film made much of a dent commercially, each just narrowly cracking 2013's Top 200 at the box office, art house label Sony Pictures Classics presumably had lower expectations for this than Roadshow Attractions did for Wiig's non-subtitled, PG-13 comedy vehicle.

Announced just a week after the widely recognized film was essentially eliminated from Oscar competition, Wadjda reaches stores today exclusively in a Blu-ray + DVD combo pack.

Wadjda: Blu-ray + DVD combo pack cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

1.78:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
Blu-ray: 5.1 DTS-HD MA (Arabic, French)
DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (Arabic, French)
Subtitles: English, English for Hearing Impaired, French
Not Closed Captioned; Foreign Extras Subtitled in English
Release Date: February 11, 2014
Suggested Retail Price: $40.99
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (1 BD-50 & 1 DVD-9)
Blue Keepcase with Side Snap
Also available on Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

Despite hailing from a place where film production only began last decade, Wadjda surprisingly is just as polished and presentable as any contemporary Sony film on Blu-ray. The 1.78:1 widescreen picture is impeccably clean and clear, allowing its nice, warmly-colored photography to delight. 5.1 DTS-HD master audio soundtracks are offered both in the original Arabic and in a French dub. The recordings are satisfying and the subtitles are perfect, the only grammatical shortcomings being the result of that Pakistani driver's weak grasp of the language.

German and Saudi crew members are seen working together in "The Making of 'Wadjda.'" Writer/director Haifaa Al Mansour answers questions about her historic debut at a Directors Guild of America event.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

On both discs, Wadjda is joined by a quartet of extras.

First up is an audio commentary by writer/director Haifaa Al Mansour,

which she records in perfect English. Her screen-specific remarks shed light on her intent, the shooting conditions, and the changes occurring in editing. She also explains how the film's depictions reflect her personal experiences in Saudi Arabia and cites her writing influences. It's a valuable listen.

Kicking off the all-HD video extras, "The Making of Wadjda" (33:25) offers a wealth of behind-the-scenes footage which shows how the local cast and predominantly German crew conformed to restrictions but still managed to make a film in a place where there exists no film industry, in spite of some cultural clashes and tense moments.

Next comes Al Mansour's Q & A session (38:20) from the Directors Guild of America series. Victoria Hochberg questions the good-natured filmmaker on all aspects of this unprecedented production, before opening up the floor to those in attendance. It's a revealing and frank discussion.

The extras draw to a close, fittingly enough, with Wadjda's US theatrical trailer (2:04).

The discs open with trailers for Blue Jasmine, Austenland, The Past, Amour, and Where Do We Go Now? The same ones and no others play from the menus' Previews listing.

Each disc offers a scored, static shot of Wadjda as its menu image. The Blu-ray supports bookmarks and resumes playback.

No inserts or slipcover jazz up the side-snapped keepcase, which even forgoes Sony's usual reverse side artwork. In case you haven't figured it out, no digital copy is included here.

Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) and her friend, politician's nephew Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), go searching for a missing driver.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Even if it was terrible, Wadjda would be noteworthy for being one of the first Saudi Arabian films made and the first made by a woman. Fortunately, Haifaa Al Mansour's debut is far from terrible, engaging and charming with its depictions of family life in a fundamentally distant culture. Hiding its maker's and its country's inexperience in the medium, Wadjda resonates like few new films made in any part of the world.

Sony's Blu-ray combo pack earns high marks for its great picture and sound as well as a substantial collection of thorough bonus features. I can't hesitate to recommend this release to anyone interested in the film it holds.

Buy Wadjda from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + DVD / Instant Video

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Reviewed February 11, 2014.



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