More often than not, it is the simplest of stories that are the most interesting. Such is the case with Wadjda, the first film ever shot in Saudi Arabia that presents an engaging and thoroughly delightful tale of a young girl who wants to buy a bicycle. However, what seems a simple enough premise is complicated somewhat by the cultural mores of the society in which the story takes place. With an enchanting performance from Waad Mohammed as the titular 12-year-old, Wadjda is a reminder that cinema can educate and entertain simultaneously. Whilst the film offers considerable insight into the day-to-day reality for women in Saudi Arabia, director Haifaa Al Mansour is neither preachy nor overtly political in her rendering of Wadjda’s world.
Wadjda is a mischievous, entrepreneurial spirit who conducts myriad schemes and scams in an effort to save the requisite funds to purchase a green bicycle on display at a local toy store. Clad in jeans, Converse sneakers and forever compiling mix tapes of her favourite bands, Wadjda pushes the boundaries at every opportunity, including a friendship with neighbourhood boy Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani). It is this friendly rivalry with Abdullah, rather than any blatant desire to challenge convention, that fuels Wadjda’s desire to own a bicycle. In fact, it is Abdullah who teaches Wadjda to ride, unbeknownst to her mother (Reem Abdullah) or largely absent father (Sultan Al Assaf). With her mother – who is no longer able to have children after Wadjda’s problematic birth – preoccupied with her husband’s decision to take a second wife, Wadjda is able to implement all manner of money-making schemes with impunity. However, it is when her school announces a Koran recital competition with a handy cash prize that Wadjda sees her opportunity to secure the funds needed to purchase the bike, even if her knowledge of the holy text is rudimentary at best.
The depictions of Saudi life are fascinating, with women denied basic freedoms that we take for granted. Not permitted to drive, Wadjda’s mother relies on a driver to transport her and other local women to work, while the girls at Wadjda’s school are forced to retreat inside so that they cannot be seen by some men working on an adjacent building. Of course, women and girls are not supposed to be out in public without their faces, and the rest of their bodies for that matter, completely covered, which is something that Wadjda struggles to embrace. Her mother sympathises with Wadjda’s desire for freedom and any tension between them comes from her concern for Wadjda’s future within this patriarchal society. However, there is no doubt that yet she is also proud of her daughter’s spirited refusal to conform.
Yes, Wadjda lacks polish at times, which is to be expected given the restrictions Al Mansour faced during production. Forbidden form interacting with men in public, the director was reportedly forced to communicate with the set via radio from the back of a van. The film doesn’t try to deliver political commentary or pass judgement; it simply attempts to tell a sympathetic story about an individual who refuses to blindly accept the traditions and expectations of the society in which she lives. Perhaps the most powerful scene is that in which one of Wadja’s young classmates announces that she has been married, a declaration that raises barely a ripple with the teacher or the other girls, other than a clamouring to see the wedding photos. Yes, this world may seem repressive, but Wadjda refuses to allow the patriarchy to contain her, at least at this stage of her life.
Al Mansour’s refusal to explicitly critique the social conventions of Saudi life reflects a mature approach to the material and doesn’t reduce the emotional impact of the story. To get a glimpse of daily life in Saudi Arabia is a rare treat and harks to the power of cinema as a window to the world. Anchored by a terrific performance by young Waad Mohammed, Wadjda is a fabulously fun film in a lot of ways. This is an auspicious beginning for film production in Saudi Arabia and the career of Al Mansour, the first Saudi woman to ever direct a feature film, so who knows what the future holds.