The first film ever to be made entirely in Saudi Arabia, by its country’s first female film director – as mould-breaking cinema goes, these are two very big achievements. Wadjda has been charming critics and film festival audiences from Dubai and Venice to Rotterdam alike, with its charming blend of childhood coming-of-age, feminist implication, gentle humour and stunning cinematography of a city never seen on film. The light-hearted tone, flecked with the occasional impish outrage of a strong-willed child at odds with the society around her, belies the film’s much bigger issues, namely the extreme limitations placed on women in the ultra-conservative Islamic kingdom.
Wadjda (played with both intelligence and sheer cheek by 12-year-old Waad Mohammed) desperately wants a green bike so she can race with her best friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani). Her mother (Reem Abdullah) thinks that girls who ride bikes are shameful, but she’s more preoccupied with the possibility that her husband (Sultan Al Assaf) may take a second wife. Wadjda’s cunning and entrepreneurship see her making and selling friendship bracelets at school, and acting as a middleman in an illicit romantic relationship, in order to get the dirhams she needs. At school, she learns of a Koran competition, where winners may win 1,000 dirhams, and sets about memorizing it through the use of a video game. Her daily rebellion takes the form of wearing purple Converse trainers, listening to pop music, and answering back to men on the street.
The importance of female relationships come to the fore, particularly the touching, intense bond between mother and daughter. In a simple and particularly moving moment, we see the two women looking out at the men from a balcony. They suddenly duck down for fear of being seen unveiled outdoors, and the camera fixes on them, mother and daughter sitting together on the floor of the balcony, linked lovingly in both embrace and mutual understanding.
The kid with a bike: 12-year-old Waad Mohammed.
Haifaa Al Mansour has spoken in interview how Wadjda’s fate in some ways mirrors her own. As a director, she had to film a lot of the scenes on a walkie-talkie hidden in a van (even though she had approval of the authorities), so she wouldn’t be seen giving orders to men. Occasionally, more conservative passers-by would attempt to disrupt the filming. But having Wadjda shot in Riyadh is crucial to the film, and not just because many of the actors are from there. This is a city which we have never seen on screen, as previous Saudi Arabian films have generally been shot in the Gulf. There is a powerful strain of visual realism to our walks around the city with Wadjda, whether in the posters, the shops or passers-by, which is only occasionally disrupted by a child’s flight of fantasy, namely in imagining a green bike riding on a wall.
In a country with no public cinemas, (they were closed down in the 1970s after the assassination of King Faisal, often criticised for introducing television to Saudi Arabia), and where cinema and other cultural exploits are consider by religious conservatives to be immoral and against Islamic values, Wadjda offers a lot of hope for the growth of a Saudi Arabian film culture. In 2008, the comedy Menahi, which was produced and financed by King Abdullah's billionaire nephew Prince Waleed bin Talal's Rotana media, became the first film (excluding a handful of children's cartoons), to be shown publicly for 30 years when it was screened for nearly a week; however, a backlash erupted, with more extreme conservatives issuing a fatwa against cinemas in July 2009.
As Al Mansour has noted in interview, the situation is changing for the better, and she notes it particularly telling that she was allowed to film Wadjda by the authorities. The poignancy of this situation is buried everywhere in the film, but – in a real tearjerking little sob of a moment at the film’s climax, when we see Wadjda racing away against Abdullah on a bike. Abdullah falls behind quickly. She powers ahead. And stops. And looks around expectantly, catching her breath. We can’t see what’s waiting around the corner, but Wadjda’s determination speaks volumes.
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