Film Review: Wadjda

As the first film directed by a Saudi woman, and the first full-length feature shot entirely within Saudi Arabia, <i>Wadjda </i>tells a simple but powerful story of an adolescent girl&#8217;s irrepressible need for personal freedom. In this case, she si

The first thing you notice about 10-year old Wadjda (newcomer Waad Mohammed) are her sneakers—black canvas high-tops with purple shoelaces—which provide a stark contrast to the all-black, head-to-toe covering she must wear whenever she goes out of her house. Those shoes tell us right away that this spirited girl is a born rebel.

Although Wadjda does try to observe the Saudi customs regarding women—they cannot look at men on the street, and cannot let their voices be heard in public—she also defies them as often as possible. At school, for instance, she’s a bit of a wheeler-dealer, getting her friends to buy forbidden items like the string bracelets she’s made, or the music tapes she’s copied. And whenever Wadjda is out with her young friend and neighbor Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), the two torment and tease each other like any two kids anywhere. She always begs for a ride on his bike, and he always refuses—because in Saudi society, riding a bike can compromise a girl’s virtue.

Wadjda feels most free and comfortable at home, where she has a close and loving relationship with her mother (Reem Abdullah, a beauty and reportedly the most popular actress on Saudi TV). But her father (Sultan Al Assaf) is a distant figure, who drops by only every other week or so. While Wadjda’s mother worries that her husband may be planning to take another wife (he is, and does), the girl worries that her dad doesn’t think she’s important enough to keep her name on his proudly displayed family tree.

While it often looks as if Wadjda’s rebellious nature will get her into serious trouble, her charm and innate cleverness usually pull her through. Just as her strict teacher Hussa (Ahd, another beauty) contemplates the kind of punishment she’ll hand out to her “sinful” girls, Wadjda suddenly transforms from a rebel to a model student—announcing she will work very hard to memorize passages from the Koran. Her teacher and her family are greatly impressed. They don’t know, of course, that her efforts have but one aim: She hopes to win a cash prize by reciting the Koran in a religious school contest—and use that cash to buy a bike. Wadjda isn’t the only one surprised by the outcome.

The most astonishing thing about this movie, which has become a favorite on the festival circuit, is that it was made at all—by a woman yet, inside Saudi Arabia, where, even in 2013, there are no movie theatres. But it’s equally remarkable that director Haifaa Al Mansour has so subtly but effectively given us an insider’s view of what life is really like for women living in Saudi society—and at the same time her film holds out hope that that society is now changing for the better.

However, Saudi girls are still sent to segregated schools, and Saudi women still cannot to be seen in public without wearing the full hijab. They are still forbidden from talking to men who are not somehow related to them, and they still can’t drive. And a married woman can still be cast aside, like Wadjda’s mom, when she cannot produce a son to give her husband a new a branch on his family tree. But somewhere within that rigidly religious country, there are young girls like Wadjda, and, thanks to this wonderful film, we may now understand a little better what those girls are up against, and how even a modest step forward—like riding a bike—should be celebrated.