Battered Converse, scuffed denim underneath her abaya, scraggly hair and a cheeky glint in her eye, our first meeting with Wadjda, as she is sent out of class, sets the tone for the rebellion that prevails throughout this beautiful and heartwarming film. But rebellion, or perhaps self-belief, extends beyond the film to its very making. Directed by Saudi Arabia’s first female director, Haifaa Al Mansour, and reportedly the first film to have been filmed entirely in Saudi Arabia, Wadjda is boundary and regime pushing to the very end.
Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is a precocious little school girl, living with her mother in the Saudi capital of Riydah, living the usual life of school and playing with friends with one major exception – little girls in Saudi Arabia can’t ride bicycles. Al Mansoor transforms this seemingly simple concept of a little girl wanting a bike to race with her friend into a vehicle to illustrate the role of women in Saudi society and also the lengths women go to assert their own identities. A heavy load for a little girl but Wadjda is up to the challenge, taking her entrepreneurial spirit and determination to win a race to raise the money to buy herself a bike.
Only there aren’t many ways for young girls to earn money in Saudi Arabia. Still falling short from the bracelets Wadjda makes for her school friends and her cheeky bartering with friends to earn some extra riyals, her dream of the 800 riyal bike seems a distant prize. That is until she discovers her school’s religious group is holding a Koran reciting competition with a prize of 1000 riyals. While religion may be ingrained in the reason why she can’t ride a bike down her street like the boys, Wadjda is not deterred and commits herself to the task at hand. With the help of her handy PlayStation ‘Koran Made Easy’, of course.
Wadjda is a sentimental but by no means sugar-coated view of women in Saudi Arabia. With a predominately female cast, aside from brief appearances by Wadjda’s father and best friend Abdullah, the film has a distinctly female voice offering a truth rarely seen through the male gaze dominating Arab filmmaking. From the conservative school teacher to Wadjda’s beautiful but sad mother, struggling with the cruel reality that her husband must now look elsewhere for someone to provide the son she no longer can, Wadjda lifts the veil on the broad spectrum of women in Arabic society in a new and touching way.
Part of the London Film Festival’s ‘First Feature Competition’, Wadjda is a simple but invigorating insight into a world too often shrouded away, given fresh life and honesty by the enthusiasm of its female director and its little leading lady.
Wadjda screened as part of the 56th BFI London Film Festival (in partnership with American Express).