WRITTEN BY: Haifaa Al-Mansour
DIRECTED BY: Haifaa Al-Mansour
STARRING: Waad Mohammed, Abdullrahman Al Gohani, Reem Abdullah, Ahd
RATING: 4 stars
Learning to ride a bicycle is part of most people's childhood, but in Saudi Arabia, it is frowned upon for girls. Wadjda presents a basic, and yet interesting, story about a girl who wants to buy a bicycle. Spoiler alert: she is successful. It is a minor victory for the protagonist and echoes the wider changes that are slowly but surely happening in Saudi Arabia. Wadjda is believed to be the first film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and the first to be made in the country by a woman. It was the country's first submission for Oscar consideration and has been dubbed a pioneering film. For that reason, you might expect a massively ground breaking film, but that is not what Wadjda is. Writer/director Haifaa Al-Mansour presents an innocent depiction about the simple daily struggles that women face in a strict Muslim society and leaves the audience to reflect on how fortunate we are in our Western society and some hope for how other parts of the world are developing to give women equal rights. It does all of this without feeling overly political or critical of Islam.
Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is a young girl living in Riyadh, stifled by her country's religious traditions. She is a spirited and rebellious girl who listens to Western music on her radio, wears sneakers instead of plain black shoes, and her hijab is always falling off. To everyone's dismay, she also announces that she wants to buy a bicycle so she can beat her young neighbour, Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), in a race. After her mother (Reem Abdullah) refuses to pay for a bike, Wadjda enters a competition where her knowledge of the Koran is put to the test for a cash prize. Meanwhile, her mother struggles to deal with her father (Sultan Al Assaf) who is so desperate to have a son that he considers the possibility of taking a second wife.
The film has a lot of strong women despite their oppression. But at the same time, the film does not demonise men. There are very few males depicted in the film, but Abdullah is a lovable young boy and even Wadjda's father is, to some extent, a victim of his culture. Mohammed is an absolute delight to watch. It is her first film and she is in almost very scene. She is funny, brave and a great heroine. Al Gohani is equally impressive and adorable. Most of the best scenes are between the two youngsters. Abdullah also gives a beautiful performance whether she is singing while she cooks or crying over her desperate situation at home. Ahd is also very good as the school principal, Ms Hussa. While she enforces the rules for the schoolgirls so strictly, she is dealing with her own personal dramas after being aught alone with a man.
The more I ponder Wadjda, the more I like it. If nothing else, it gives Westerners an insight into a part of the world many do not understand.