Haifaa Al-Mansour’s beautifully realised debut feature scores a number of firsts. This is the first time a female Saudi director has made a full-length film, and it’s the first feature ever to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, a country with no cinemas.
The film tells the story of Wadjda, a ten-year-old girl living in present-day Riyadh who decides she must do all she can to buy a beautiful bicycle. She wants to race and beat her friend Abdullah, the neighbour’s son.
Riding a bicycle is ‘not for girls’ and will lead to infertility, she is told. But she shrugs off the restrictions she experiences in her daily life, or cleverly finds a way around them. Waad Mohammed gives a compelling performance as the precocious, entrepreneurial free spirit Wadjda. She loves western rock music, making mix tapes to barter with, selling bracelets to her classmates and running risky errands, all with the goal of saving towards the hallowed bicycle.
This project gives the film its main narrative thread and leads to a rewarding climax, but the film is about so much more. It is a coming-of-age story, and also a social drama centred on family bonds competing with the demands of an authoritarian state. But far from focusing on the negative aspects of life in Riyadh, the film portrays the city not as a hugely threatening place, but as one that has unique challenges for Wadjda to overcome. There is a lot of love in Wadjda’s world, from her earthy and loving mother and proud but constrained father to the smaller characters she encounters along the way, such as the friendly shopkeeper and her devoted friend Abdullah.
By the end of the film we have learned so much about this young girl, and also about the complex society she lives in. The film is beautifully shot by Lutz Reitemeier and edited with a masterful sense of pace and drama. The storytelling is economical – every exchange in every scene has a real purpose – and yet as a whole the film feels so natural, as if a camera has simply been dropped into the action.
As Wadjda peddles to the crossroads near her home, she is moving forwards in every way, empowered and ready, her destiny in her hands. This film is a success on all levels, and not to be missed.