Wadjda is a miracle of a movie. In a way getting any film off the ground that doesn’t feature a comic book superhero is a miracle – but Wadjda even more so. It is the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and more importantly the first feature film ever made by a Saudi Arabian woman. Normally when I go to a screening, I try to leave all baggage, positive or negative, about the film at the door. But knowing that director Haifaa al-Mansour is a first of her kind, knowing that she often had to direct while hiding in a van because women and men could not publicly mix, knowing she comes from a country that doesn’t even have movie theaters, knowing all this ahead of time added to the power and enjoyment of this wonderful and important film.
The story is a simple but significant one. Eleven year old Wadjda (played by the charming and natural born actress Waad Mohammed) wants more than anything to own a bicycle. But in Saudi Arabia this is not a proper toy for a girl, something Wadjda’s teachers and mother keep reminding her. The little Chuck Taylor sneaker-wearing troublemaker of a girl is not deterred and devises a scheme to buy a bike on her own. She decides to compete in her school’s Koran recital competition. If she wins she’ll have more than enough prize money to buy her dream bike. Like I said, simple and straightforward. But this story is more than just its plot. It’s a microcosm of what the women of Saudi Arabia have to go through on a daily basis.
The film is full of women: Wadjda, her mother, her classmates, and the headmistress of the school. We are constantly reminded how Wadjda’s life is affected by being raised in a country that repeatedly tells her to cover her face or run inside when men are around. We see teenage girls forced to hide lipstick and grown women unable to follow their heart. I always knew Saudi Arabia was a country that didn’t allow women to drive cars but I never really understood how this affected their lives until seeing this film. Wadjda’s mother is forced to pay a man to drive her (and many other women) to work or on errands each day. The man is cruel, rude and just unpleasant to be around. Young Wadjda recognizes this and often calls him out on it. Her mother isn’t in a position to argue, and when the man refuses to drive her anymore, we realize just how at the mercy of men Saudi women can be.
In small ways, all these women end up standing up for themselves. They all defy society in some regard. The film isn’t necessarily about women seeking social change. In fact, at first glance it seems to portray life in Saudi Arabia fairly non-judgmentally. That is until you realize that a little girl learning to ride a bike is in and of itself how social change begins.
The real heart of this story is the mother/daughter relationship. The father is in and out of the picture as he tries to find a second wife who might give him a son. Because of this Wadjda and her mom can only truly count on each other. The mother is constantly trying to teach Wadjda what is proper for a little girl. It isn’t until a very emotional finale that we start to realize Wadjda might have been teaching her mother a thing or two as well.
This is a beautiful film that has received much deserved praise at the Toronto and Venice Film Festivals. Both the character of Wadjda and the filmmaker al-Mansour are truly inspiring. When it opens this August, I urge you to seek it out.