Wadja and Wadjda are the similar names of two people, who are as different as the sun and the moon. But the names cause confusion on many internet search engines, and in people’s brains. In fact, upon examionation, there is a strange symmetry between the two.
Andrzej Wadja, 87-88, is the great European/ Polish film director, who made, among many films,“Katyn” in 2007, nominated for Oscar’s (Best Foreign Film). Wadjda, is the first name of the fictional 10 year old Saudi girl, who is the star of 2012’s “Wadjda” a film, by Saudi director Haifaa al-Mansour. “Wadjda”, is the first full length Saudi film and the first Saudi film by a woman (in her late 30’s). It will be Saudia’s entry to the 86th Oscars. Shot exclusively in sandy Riyadh, it is currently playing to curious Israeli audiences.
Indeed the “play’s the thing” in both works by Wadja and al-Mansour. Wadja’s “Katyn,” was a big cinematic and emotional event in both Russia and Poland, where the Katyn saga is, according to my own visit to Poland in 2009, a national obsession. Similarly, “Wadjda” (gently) deals with an international issue for Saudi Arabians: its treatment of women. “Wadjda” is a fine film but probably would not have gotten so much attention had it not been shot in Riyadh and by a woman nonetheless. Both films were made by insiders who had/have a personal stake involved.
A maverick Saudi girl, Wadjda wears Ked sneakers under her chador and dreams of owning a bicycle— illegal for women and girls in Saudi Arabia— and race a white-capped boy named Abdullah. She wins a Qur’an contest to but is forced to “donate” her winnings to “our brothers in Palestine.” Simultaneously, her father leaves home to take a second wife who will (hopefully) bear him a son a la the Tudor king, Henry VIII. In the end, her beautiful mother supports her daughter’s dreams.
Switch slides. Katyn is a forest where in 1940, Soviet NKVD henchman murdered thousands of Polish P.O.W.’s (between 14,000-22,000) on orders of USSR chief Josef Stalin and Lavrenti Beria. The victims, the cream of Polish military and intelligentsia, included Wagda’s own father and several hundred Jews, including the chief rabbi of the Polish Army. For years many Polish women had no idea what happened to their men and Soviets bizarrely and falsely blamed the Nazis (one massacre they did not commit). The subject wasn’t resolved till 1990 and the Russians apologized. (Katyn was in the news again, when in 2010, a plane crash en route to Katyn for a 70th anniversary memorial event, killed the Polish president, first lady and 87 other Polish politicians and military biggies.)
Neither Wajda’s work on Katyn, nor “Wadjda” are Jewish films per se. But both Poland and Saudi Arabia are crucial to both the Jews and to Israel’s past culture and future existence , and what these esteemed filmmakers have to say about their respective countries, is important.