A teen girl yearns for a new bike in this groundbreaking, deeply moving comedy-drama from Saudi Arabia.
Imagine a world where no one dare speak and laughter is punished. A world where freedom is outlawed, people are property and deviation from the rules carries brutal and violent consequences. This is no fictional, futuristic dystopia: this is the present day for a woman living in Saudi Arabia.
The idea that a woman might deign to make a film in this prohibitive and deeply patriarchal domain remains at best laughable and at worst totally and utterly out of the question. Yet with the wonderful Wadjda, Haifaa Al- Mansour has miraculously achieved just that. Bravely venturing into forbidden territory, Al-Mansour even directed the film via a walkie-talkie to avoid being seen giving orders to men in public.
Al-Mansour’s bravery is mirrored in the plucky young heroine at the heart of this subtle examination of ingrained human rights abuses. Ten-year-old Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is a wheeling, dealing entrepreneur, weaving her way through a conservative and regimented high school designed to shape its female attendants into the second-class citizens of the future. Never resigned to her sealed fate, Wadjda sets about acquiring the burgeoning object of her desire: a bike. With feigned enthusiasm but committed dedication she enters a competition to memorise the Koran in the hope of seizing the cash prize needed to buy this treasured item, worshipping daily as it taunts her from the shop window.
The bike acts as an explicit metaphor for liberation and the quest for its acquisition soon becomes a frustrating analogy for the struggle for women’s autonomy in a state where their behaviour and mobility is strictly monitored. The film never struggles under the strain of its weighty subject matter, delivering an enjoyable and heartfelt tale which combines elements of exhilarating comedy and tense drama that never detract from its bravely articulated subtext.
Mohammed’s central performance is commendable as the rebellious, angel-faced tomboy with a cheeky façade and a skewed moral compass: she presents a refreshingly optimistic view of youth in revolt. Wadjda naturally employs some underhand manipulation tactics in her bid for glory which in turn generates many of the film’s standout comedy moments.
The subject of female oppression in Saudi Arabia is still considered a top-ranking taboo, making this something of an insouciant filmmaking milestone, not simply in terms of its dissection of female status and discrimination, but the courageousness of writer/director Al- Mansour, who operates in the face of incessant adversity and torrents of hate mail. Al-Mansour describes the film’s central premise as one of “hope, embracing change and moving ahead”, messages powerfully apparent by the film’s gracefully poignant conclusion.
Boldly going where no female filmmaker has gone before: Saudi Arabia.
A frustrating but relentlessly affirmative eye-opener.
A rebel with a cause.