The importance of the first film to be made by a Saudi woman can not be overstressed and yet the social commentary never detracts from a simple, charming story, says Stuart Wren.
Sometimes it takes a simple story to speak volumes about society. Take Wadjda, a film that tells the tale of a young girl who wants a bike. Nothing remarkable about that, I hear you cry. But this story is about so much more. That this is the first film to be made in Saudi Arabia is enough to make it an interesting piece, but then add the fact that it’s directed by a woman and deals with the stuggles of females, with all the leads played by women, and you have a hugely important piece of cinema. It’s also a delight.
Wadjda is a 10-year-old girl living in a suburb of Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. Although she lives in a conservative world she’s fun loving, entrepreneurial and always pushing the boundaries of what she can get away with. After a fight with her friend Abdullah, a neighborhood boy she shouldn’t be playing with, Wadjda sees a beautiful green bicycle for sale. She wants the bicycle desperately so that she can beat Abdullah in a race. But Wadjda’s mother won’t allow it, fearing repercussions from a society that sees bicycles as dangerous to a girl’s virtue. So Wadjda decides to try and raise the money herself.
At first, Wadjda’s mother is too preoccupied with convincing her husband not to take a second wife to realise what’s going on. And soon enough Wadjda’s plans are thwarted when she’s caught running various schemes at school. Just as she is losing hope of raising enough money, she hears of a cash prize for a Koran recitation competition at her school. She devotes herself to the memorisation of Koranic verses, and her teachers begin to see Wadjda as a model pious girl. The competition isn‘t going to be easy, especially for a troublemaker like Wadjda, but she refuses to give in. She is determined to continue fighting for her dreams…
Writer/Director Haifaa Al Mansour has used this simple story to convey a strong message that women, in a land where they are not even allowed to be seen in public without covering up, are more than just invisible objects. By playing with a handful of characters and the relationship between Wadjda and her mother, the film has plenty of heart and a full scope of emotional possibilities, all of which are expertly handled. Wisely, Mansour also avoids any major stereotypes. Even though this is a film about women, Mansour never portrays the men as weak or evil. We’re given a deeply human portrait of Wadjda’s father, a man caught between his love for Wadjda’s mother and his devotion to his own mother.
Each of the protagonists are beautifully drawn and well performed by the cast. Reem Abdullah, as Wadjda’s mother, gives a sympathetic and moving performance, having to cope with a wayward daughter who wants to break traditions while negotiating her own problems. It’s a remarkably subtle performance. But it’s Waad Mohammed’s delighful Wadjda who is at the heart of this terrific film. With a smile that can warm even the hardest hearts, the young girl, in her first acting role, is a natural. She is the lynch pin of the whole film and holds it together seamlessly.
The central message of the film – the restrictions imposed upon women in Saudi society – is handled with humour and grace. Crucially, the important social commentary never hinders this compelling story. To many, it’s just a story of a girl and a bike. To others, including me, it’s a triumph and a must see.
Wadjda is on general release.
Words: Stuart Wren
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