Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

It’s always a great experience to watch a film whose mere existence is a cause for celebration. And the experience becomes even more pleasurable when you quickly realise it needs no special pleading, and can be judged a resounding success entirely on its own merits.

Wadjda is the first feature film to be made by a female Saudi Arabian director, and the first to be shot entirely in the kingdom. The story of Al-Mansour’s five-year battle to gain financial backing and permission to shoot scenes on the streets of the capital Riyadh (during which she was forbidden to mix publicly with the male members of the crew) deserves a film in itself. But the end result transcends its cultural and political context to become a universal tale which captures perfectly the simple dreams and harsh realities of growing up.

The heroine of the title is an 11-year-old girl (Waad Mohammed) living with her mother in a reasonably well-heeled area of Riyadh. She’s bright and cheerful but with an undoubted rebellious streak – wearing trainers under her burka, listening to Western-style pop music on pirated tapes and finding religious studies the hardest part of her schoolwork.

She’s also starting to become aware of the strictures placed on women by a society that regards them as second-class citizens. Her mother (Reem Abdullah) has to be driven to her job; her father (Sultan Al Assaf) spends most of the time at his mother’s house and is thinking of taking a second wife in order to obtain a male heir; and even Wadjda’s best friend Abdullah ( Abdullrahman Al Gohani) sometimes treats her with unthinking cruelty and contempt.

So when she sees a gleaming new bicycle, seeming to float through the air as the truck it’s strapped to speeds along a freeway behind the fence that forms the boundary of their neighbourhood, it becomes a symbol of freedom and excitement. When she realises it’s on sale at the local toy shop she’s determined to buy it and challenge Abdullah to a race – despite the fact that riding a bike is (like virtually everything else) considered a sinful activity for young girls and the price tag is far beyond her meagre savings.

Making bracelets and mix tapes for her classmates earns her a handful of riyals but the prize still seems a long way away – and her activities place her under the stern eye of the ultra-devout headmistress (Ahd). But when the school announces a Koran-reciting competition whose prize money would cover the cost of the bike in one go, Wadjda throws herself into studying for it. The teachers are impressed by her new-found zeal (having no idea what she intends to use the prize money for). But Wadjda finds committing the words of the Prophet to memory and reeling them off parrot-fashion a difficult task. And other aspects of school and home life are adding to her problems...

Given the struggles she encountered during its making, Al-Mansour could have been forgiven for making her film an embittered and angry polemic. Instead she simply depicts, in a truthful, unshowy fashion, the sheer number of everyday burdens and prohibitions faced by Saudi women. But she also celebrates the bond between Wadjda and her mother, the friendships that each tries to maintain in the face of official disapproval and the simple kindnesses (often from an unexpected source) that hold out the hope of change.

This is skilfully interwoven into a tale of an ordinary girl coping with the petty cruelties and betrayals of the childhood world (and becoming aware of the shabbiness and hypocrisy of the adult one, where parents and teachers aren’t always paragons of virtue) – a tale as skilfully told as any by De Sica, Ken Loach or the Dardenne brothers.

The cast are universally exemplary – especially Mohammed, making her debut with a beautifully natural study of a typical pre-teen girl; feisty, energetic, occasionally selfish and unthinking but with an essentially good heart. Abdullah is a model of quiet dignity as the mother, essentially abandoned by her husband but determined to remain a ‘respectable’ woman and bring up her daughter as well as she can. Al Assaf and Al Gohani, the principal male characters, are an intriguing matched pair – a generation apart but equally capable of being kind and cruel in turn to the women around them. And Ahd (a respected filmmaker in her own right) offers a memorably scary turn as the pious, dictatorial headmistress who may not always practise what she preaches.

Al-Mansour gets the best out of them all as writer and director, as well as vividly conjuring up the sandblasted streets and air-conditioned malls of the Saudi capital. At times, the world Wadjda inhabits seems very familiar to a Western audience – until a classmate comes to school proudly displaying her wedding photos or her mother warns her to close the Koran before they go out, in case the Devil comes and spits in it.

Though Al-Mansour refuses to judge or sermonise on such a world, the final image of the film offers a perfect distillation of its protagonist’s free spirit and a hope that such a spirit won’t be trammelled by hypocrisy and overbearing tradition. It thoroughly deserves all the awards its garnered but don’t be misled into thinking that seeing it will just be a ‘worthy’ duty to establish your right-on credentials. It’s a cracking film by a born filmmaker and I can’t wait to see what all involved in it do next.

Reviewed on: 13 Aug 2013
Share this with others on...
A young Saudi girl who will stop at nothing to earn enough money to buy the bicycle she craves.
Amazon link

Director: Haifaa Al-Mansour

Writer: Haifaa Al-Mansour

Starring: Reem Abdullah, Waad Mohammed, Abdullrahman Al Gohani, Ahd, Sultan Al Assaf, Dana Abdullilah, Rehab Ahmed, Rafa Al Sanea, Mohammed Albahry, Mariam Alghamdi, Ali Algorbani, Sara Aljaber, Mohammed Alkhozain, Maram Alkohzaim, Mariam Alkohzaim

Year: 2012

Runtime: 98 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: Saudi Arabia, Germany

Search database:

If you like this, try:

Bicycle Thieves