These days it is quite rare for double breakthroughs to occur simultaneously.
The recently released Wadjda is both the first film to be shot in Saudi Arabia, as well as the first to be written and directed by a Saudi woman, the commendable Haifaa Al-Mansour. These achievements alone are enough to grab the audience’s attention, but what really sets Wadjda apart is its homespun, empathetic handle of storytelling.
The feisty and mischievous 11-year old Wadjda (effortlessly played by Waad Mohammed), lives in the dusty, arid streets of Riyadh, the capital. We are privileged to receive a glimpse into a common Saudi household: a place where headscarves and robes are shed, and secrets spilled. Her family is fairly well off but not extravagantly rich: despite the presence of a Playstation in the house, the disciplined yet forgiving mother (perfectly captured by Reem Abdullah) continuously struggles with the unreliability of her driver. Soon, the social and cultural codes of conduct come into sharp focus: cinemas are banned (some shots were filmed from a mobile phone in a blacked-out van), women are forbidden to drive and cannot have a place on the family tree, and girls especially are discouraged from cycling. Which all the more makes our protagonist crave to race a neighbourhood boy, the cheeky but sympathetic Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani). Wadjda becomes determined to ride a shiny green bicycle of her own: a gesture seemingly innocent and practical, yet over time quickly manifests itself as a deeper longing of liberation.
…the importance of diligence and perseverance…
But we all know this is not going to be easy. The uptight Head Mistress Ms. Hussa (a brilliantly intimidating Ahd), is a strong proponent of conservatism (“a woman’s voice is her nakedness”) and tactfully makes all attempts to defy Wadjda’s quiet rebellion. Wadjda finds herself in a battle against family and societal expectations, yet Al-Mansour has painted this struggle in a light far from offensive. In fact, the film makes several respectful odes to the importance of diligence and perseverance when placed in the religious context. Although Wadjda initially joins Religion Club in the hopes of winning a school Koran-recital competition for money to buy a bicycle, her ambitious efforts simultaneously win her respect and admiration of her peers. A combination of one girl’s success and failure is what makes the narrative of Wadjda convincing and heart-warming, but never too explicit or artificial. In fact, to Westerners the backdrop of arranged marriages and gender segregation may seem almost fictional. But Al-Mansour notably wakes us up to the sheer reality of the conservative Arab world, in a way that is successfully eye-opening but by no means preachy.
The playful humourous moments add light to an otherwise troublesome situation, and the stubborn childhood curiosity of Wadjda is refreshing in a world of strict moral adherence. The film subtly yet powerfully pushes the boundaries, and even though the progression towards equality may be gradual, one thing is certain: our cycle rides home will never be the same again.
Wadjda is playing at select HMVCurzon, Cineworld, and Odeon cinemas across London.