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film review

What Walaa Wants tells the story of a woman raised in a West Bank refugee camp, determined to become one of the few women in the Palestinian Security Forces.1996-98 AccuSoft Inc., All right/National Film Board of Canada / TIFF

  • What Walaa Wants
  • Directed by Christy Garland
  • Classification PG
  • 89 minutes

Rating:

4 out of 4 stars

Christy Garland’s incredible documentary What Walaa Wants, produced by the National Film Board, Murmur Media and Final Cut for Real, is the stuff of a high-stakes Hollywood biopic – though it’s doubtful that any filmmaker could ever do her intimate portrait justice, or find a young actress as compelling or fun to watch as the film’s real-life subject.

Garland’s devastating film chronicles a pivotal time in the life of the charismatic and highly flawed Walaa Khaled, from age 15 to 21, as she pursues her dream of becoming a policewoman in the Palestinian Security Forces (PSF). At age 15, her family has been relocated to Balata, a West Bank refugee camp, after her mother was imprisoned for aiding a convicted suicide bomber. Now living in a small apartment with several relatives, including her younger brother Mohammed, and sleeping under Batman sheets, Walaa is desperate to join the police force, mostly so she can get her own gun. She crackles with insolence and intensity in conversation with her relatives, clearly thriving as the centre of attention and the focus of Garland’s camera.

Although her unusual dream has fuelled her since the ninth grade, Walaa is also a regular teenage girl, turning up Usher’s Yeah! on the stereo and dissing a relative for liking her own Facebook posts. At times, martyrdom seems like an easy way for Walaa to gain her family’s respect. Both Walaa and Mohammed idolize a cousin who has been detained for throwing stones. All of her family members have spent time in prison, and they wear those stories as a badge of courage, setting a dangerous precedent for what’s to come. Her tragic story and its redemptive ending make for one of the best coming-of-age movies you will see all year.

Time after time, Walaa has been forced to grow up in circumstances far beyond her maturity level, which have put her through the wringer. Her emotional walls are hard to scale, yet Garland manages to find brief moments of vulnerability within her protagonist’s brave facade. While cavalierly smoking shisha with her friends, she confesses that her biggest regret in life was meeting her biological father. This multifaceted portrait shows her appearing tough as nails, chain smoking and exclaiming to her relatives, “All that matters to me is the Authority! What good is a man?” But the fact that she’s wearing a hot pink sweatshirt with kittens on it, while relishing the day she gets her gun, is just one of many delicious visual details in Garland’s all-seeing, intimate portrait, filmed over the filmmaker’s 10 trips to the West Bank.

The movie kicks into high gear when Walaa begins training in the PSF. Finally faced with the impossibility of her dream, she starts to crumble under the scrutiny of her officers and fakes leg cramps and fainting spells, instead of participating in the near constant physical drills. Garland captures Walaa with striking handheld camerawork as her face flickers between eye rolls and a hardened steely glare on the verge of tears. What Walaa wants is the ability to exert authority over others, but what she actually needs is control over her own chaotic rush of emotions. While her officers try to help her recognize her own potential, Walaa isn’t able to accept their kindness yet.

As a young adult, Walaa told news reporters that without her mother, she felt like she didn’t belong to anyone. Belonging to the PSF is a chance to claim some sort of identity, but it also has dangerous ramifications. Unfortunately, Garland’s film is only able to hint at these in a pivotal scene in which Walaa’s relatives chastise her for insulting and hitting a woman in the square as a representative of the PSF. It is a curious plot point that leaves us hanging.

The film is ultimately a redemptive story, but one that’s been finely crafted and plainly told. Feminism has long been used as a marketing tool to sell everything from Taylor Swift concert tickets to maxi pads, and in film, teenage girls rarely get the respect they deserve. It may be tempting to brand What Walaa Wants as a feel-good girl-power story in which an unlikely heroine sets out to do a man’s job and finally finds her place in the world. Thankfully, Garland’s movie also shows her main character giving up, annoying everyone around her, making unforgivable mistakes to the point of being imprisoned – and still earning every inch of her humanity back.

The film is so compelling that you don’t want Walaa’s story to end. If the NFB is smart, they’ll develop a Walaa series similar to the British Up! documentaries, so we can keep checking in on Walaa every seven years or so. And if Hollywood is smart, they’ll let her star in the movie of her own life. This unforgettable young woman is ready for her close-up.

What Walaa Wants opens March 1 in Toronto.