The eponymous Wadjda is in trouble. And as we see her purple-laced Converse peek out from under her black school abaya, we get the distinct impression that it’s not for the first time. What is a first, though, is that this wonderful Saudi-made movie is brought to us by the country’s pioneering female filmmaker, Haifaa Al-Mansour.
Like Antonio in 1948’s BICYCLE THIEVES, Wadjda is on a quest for a bike – only in this case she has to buy one, not just track it down. The problem is that in Saudi Arabia, as everyone reminds her, girls don’t ride bicycles – even her mother, with uncharacteristic severity, states, “If you ride a bike you won’t be able to have children.”
Waad Mohammed is charming in the role of ten-year-old Wadjda seeking to fulfil her dream. Following her own moral code – often outside the realms of the societal norm – to gather the money to buy her wheels, she remains just on the right side of mischief, favouring opportunism over theft. Her cheekiness is heartwarming throughout, especially when she extorts five riyals from her childhood sweetheart Abdullah just to stop crying.
There is a definite fairy-tale quality about this piece as the young girl struggles to reach her goal. Wadjda first sees her prize almost floating along as it is transported by lorry to a brightly coloured toyshop. The shop owner is stand-offish at first, but like us he cannot help falling under her spell.
The wicked witch comes in the form of strict headmistress Ms Hussa. She has an almost Nurse Ratched-style presence, interrogating and punishing pupils for their disrespect and misbehaviour. Unlike Jack Nicholson’s McMurphy, Wadjda sets about her rebellion privately, selling bracelets for cash to her schoolmates. Soon, however, it becomes apparent that much greater enterprise will be needed to secure the required cash, and Wadjda commits to joining the Religious Club in order to win the 1,000-riyal Quran recital prize. Up until now she has been much more interested in playing than praying, and this is going to be quite a challenge.
You would be right to think this is quite a formulaic set up, but there is much more to the tale, as Al-Mansour cleverly works to invest it with a deeper significance. We are reminded throughout of attitudes towards women in Saudi Arabia. Some of these reminders are subtle, such as the censored billboards in the background, while others are more overt – for example, the predatory nature of the workmen around Wadjda’s schoolyard. A subplot surrounding Wadjda’s father and his potential second bride, as well as the struggles of Saudi Arabia’s immigrant population, flesh out the film impressively.
There are moments of sadness and tension as well as plenty of humour in Wadjda’s story. Early on, in an effort to curtail her adventurous spirit, she is told “a woman’s voice is her nakedness,” but from the outset, like the film’s director, the story of this little girl speaks volumes.