Written and directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, graduate of the University of Sydney, Wadjda is the first film to be shot in its entirety on location in Saudi Arabia. It is also the first feature from a female Saudi filmmaker. Beautifully crafted, admirably honest and unwaveringly optimistic, Wadjda provides fascinating insight into everyday life in the nation’s capital, Riyadh, and tells a sweet and uplifting tale of the earnest belief in life’s potential and teenage independence within a strict conservative culture. Vibrantly shot, with a striking performance from young lead Waad Mohammed, this is an enjoyable, heartfelt crowd-pleaser and a very important work of international cinema.
Wadjda (Mohammed) is not your typical 10-year-old girl – she’s intuitive, full of energy and individualism - with the unusual desire of owning a bike. While her father continues to provide for Wadjda and her mother, he is set to take another wife in the hopes that she will bear him a son. He splits his time between both women, which is a cause for anxiety for Wadjda’s mother. At school, Wadjda is rebellious, blatantly disobeying the strict customs that virtuous females must abide by and she has several run-ins with her upstanding headmistress. On the streets she befriends a local boy and gets herself into many unladylike situations. She swindles her classmates for cash by selling bracelets and mix tapes, hoping to buy the bike herself, eventually deciding to try and win the cash prize offered by the school Quran recitation competition. Her attention to her studies, and the memorising of the religious verses begins to change people’s perspective of her.
Wadjda is a very interesting character, and evidently drawn from Al-Mansour’s own life experience. She wears scuffed purple Converse shoes, listens to pop music on her headphones and consistently avoids covering her face, as required. Above all, she wants to own a bicycle, which was not something that young ladies are meant to do. Her mother at one point even tells her that it will result in her being unable to bear children. Wadjda continues to defy her mother and her headmistress with cheeky abandon.
While a gently told coming-of-age story of a youngster desiring freedom, the dynamics of home and school life are well conveyed too. We also get the sense of the restrictions imposed on women, requiring a male driver to escort them to work for example. Wadjda’s mother, as often as she is concerned for her daughter, begins to understand that her culture is in need of some boundary flexing and becomes more accepting of what makes her daughter happy. It is the beautiful relationships that are most instrumental in making this a rewarding film.
Being taken into this new cinematic world makes this film interesting on its own. As Saudi culture is so rarely portrayed on screen, observing and understanding this foreign way of life is fascinating. Shot on the streets of Riyadh, the authenticity is undeniable. While the film’s gorgeous cinematography and evidently scripted drama removes it from the conventions of neorealist cinema, there is still a sense of natural life unravelling before the camera that defines the style. The process of making this film must have been very difficult and I have great respect for Al-Mansour’s bravery in fighting to have this film made and for telling such a lovely and moving story.
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22