Film Review: WHAT WALAA WANTS (Canada 2018)

What Walaa Wants Poster
Raised in a refugee camp in the West Bank, while her mother was in prison, Walaa is determined to survive basic training to become one of the few women on the Palestinian Security Forces – …See full summary »


Christy Garland

Waala is the pre-teen daughter of an imprisoned woman, jailed for 8 solid years for terrorist activities.  When the film opens, the mother’s house was entered during her arrest, one of the soldiers yelling at her: “You are not a mother, you are no one, you are shit!”

The mother is released 8 years later and reunited with her family, namely her 2 daughters  and the younger son.  The mother seems to have tamed down, but one daughter, Waala  appears full of sprite.  What does Waala want?  Waala is rebellious at school, creating mischief that could result in delinquency detention, but she now wants to become a police woman in the Palestinian Security Forces.  Toronto filmmaker Christy Garland follows Waala from the ages of 15 to 21.

WHAT WAALA WANTS has garnished rave reviews including being selected as Canada’s Top 10 films of the year.  This an example of a case where a film is praised for its subject rather than its merit, though it is clear that there is still considerable merit in the film despite glaring flaws.  This is also a woman’s film with a woman director and producer and subject with the aim of showing how a young female can defy formidable odds to get what she wants.

For one the film’s continuity comes into question right at the beginning.  When arrested, the woman answers ‘no’ to the question posed by the solder if she is a mother.  Why then is there a son and 2 daughters present at her release.  No details are given as to what the mother was arrested for, except that she intended to drive a suicide bomber to his target  but got caught before.  Not much of the political climate is explained as well.  The film assumes the audience familiar with the current situation.  The film also uncomfortably shifts its subject from the mother to the daughter.  

The conflict scene between mother and Walaa looks weird as the two are never shown in the same frame.  The segment loses its effectiveness.  Question is why the two were unable to be filmed together.

The film contains lengthy middle section showing the details of the rigours undergone by Walaa during boot camp Palestinian training.  This is the most watchable segment where director  shows that What Walaa wants is not so easily obtained.

The film’s seemingly misguided narrative amplifies the fact that director Garland is indecisive as to what the film’s real goal is.  At one point, it is a story of a family undergoing hardship.  Then it becomes one about a girl’s coming of age.  Or is it one about the rigours of boot camp training?  The film never questions the gravity of the mother’s crime.  For Garland, being imprisoned is the crime against her and her family.  Should the mother serve life sentence for being part of a terrorist act that could have killed dozens of innocent people?

Tough WHAT WAALA WANTS falls into the documentary category, it hardly feels like one.  It feels more like a fiction film based on true incidents.

So does Waala get what she wants in the end?  It does not take a genius to determine the answer.  Despite illustrating life of a Palestinian teen in hardship, director Garland has more sympathy for her heroine than she deserves in a film that could do with clearer direction.


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