Canadian director Christy Garland’s What Walaa Wants is 87 minutes long but distills six years of someone’s life. That life belongs to Walaa Khaled Fawzy Tanji with Garland chopping up her story into three main parts. Although thankfully, as a subject, Walaa’s unruly nature cancels out the movie’s rather strict structure. Some themes also pop up here, like the messages surrounding her.
If anything, it’s impossible to show Walaa in a bubble. As a Palestinian girl, she grows up within a heavy context and the documentary actually begins when her mother Latifa. The latter is one of the political prisoners that the Israeli government release from prison. The film’s first part shows Walaa balancing her tough life by playing like a regular girl.
Somehow, the patriotism around Walaa comes out as her ambition to join the Palestinian Security Forces. The doc’s middle section contains a lot of footage of her in training. She is one of a dozen females suffering alongside her or because of her. But sometimes, she would be often be the only woman doing runs while men surround her.
This section produces mixed feelings but not necessarily of the gender dynamic. The documentary somehow forces a hurdle where Walaa has to overcome being the camp’s most troublesome recruit. When that’s over the movie shows her going from one class to the next. The lieutenants frustrated about which skills she needs to improve, like if she can aim a rifle.
There are some noticeable flaws in this documentary. However, the film’s best part is when it closes up on Walaa’s as she endures hurdles. She smiles despite of everything she’s been through. We want her to understand how serious adulthood is but we don’t want that smile to disappear. What the doc does is capture a woman as she transforms.
Hot Docs is premiering What Walaa Wants at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on May 1 at 6PM. It’s also screening at the same venue and on May 3 at 6:15 PM. Last show is on May 4 at 3PM at the Hart House Theatre.