Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Haifaa Al-Mansour
Stars: Waad Mohammed, Abdullrahman Al Gohani, Ahd, Reem Abdullah.
A lot of films from Arab countries are made under difficult circumstances – there is heavy censorship and restrictions placed on what filmmakers are able to say in these repressive regimes. But nonetheless, under the guise of often simple coming of age stories, astute filmmakers provide insights into their rich culture, politics and lifestyle, while at the same time finding ways of subtly critiquing the injustices, and highlighting many of the social problems inherent in their patriarchal society with its subjugation of women and lack of basic human rights.
And so it is with Wadjda, the first feature film from Saudi Arabia, a country that has no cinemas or film industry to speak of. More startling is the fact that it is made by a female film maker, first time director Haifaa Al-Mansour. She apparently had to remain hidden for those scenes filmed on the streets of Riyadh because it would be unacceptable for a woman to be seen calling the shots on a film set.
Wadjda offers up a surprisingly affirmative view of a spirited young Arab girl who defies convention and breaks away from the restrictions imposed on her by a patriarchal society. Wadjda (played with a wonderfully natural style by newcomer Waad Mohammed) desperately wants to own a bicycle like her neighbour Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), the young boy who lives across the street. But it is forbidden for a girl to tide a bike in this society as it may destroy her purity and virginity. Nonetheless, Wadjda is determined to have one, and tries to save up enough money through selling hand knitted bracelets to her classmates in the strict Muslim school she attends.
We learn of the strict nature of the school run with authority by the humourless and disapproving headmistress Ms Hussa (Ahd), where acts such as painting toe nails and reading lurid magazines are frowned upon and severely punished. Wadjda enters a Koran reading competition because the first prize is more than enough money to buy a bike. Unaware of Wadjda’s true motivation in entering the contest, Ms Hussa praises Wadjda for her religious devotion and holds her up as a positive example of a devout and obedient Muslim girl. Meanwhile, Wadjda’s mother (Reem Abdullah) is distracted because her husband is considering marrying another woman, one who may be able to provide him with the son and heir he desperately craves.
On the surface, Wadjda seems like a fairly simple coming of age story, but below the surface is a more subtle criticism of the religious hypocrisy, the moral restraints, and the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia, supposedly one of the more enlightened and liberal Arab countries. We watch the slowly growing bond between the strong willed Wadjda and the curious Abdullah.
In Wadjda the bicycle becomes a cinematic metaphor for freedom and rebellion, much as it was in the Dardenne brothers sublime The Kid With A Bike. Wadjda is a deceptively simple and charming film with a slyly subversive subtext, and Al-Mansour’s direction is subtle and understated. The film has been beautifully and crisply shot by cinematographer Lutz Reitmeier.
There is a strong and engaging central performance from newcomer Mohammed, who is virtually on screen for the whole film, and who has a wonderfully expressive face and winning personality.