Wadjda is the first full-length feature film shot entirely inside Saudi Arabia, a conservative Islamic country where women are denied civic freedoms or any public role. It’s director is Haifaa Al-Mansour, a Saudi-born female filmmaker who now lives in Bahrain. While shooting on location in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, Al-Mansour had to hide in a production van, directing her actors via walkie-talkie, because she could not publicly mix with her male crew. Although her film is ostensibly an intimate story about an 11-year old girl living in Riyadh who dreams of owning a bike, nevertheless it projects a deeper message about Saudi society.
Wadjda, played by Waad Mohammed, is a precocious young Saudi girl from a lower-middle-class family in Riyadh; her spirit and tenacity are considered problematic by her school teachers, while Wadjda herself is perplexed by the Kingdom’s restrictive culture towards women. Much as women are not allowed to drive cars, girls – Wadjda leans – cannot ride bikes. Seeing no logic in this, Wadjda sets out to learn passages for the Quran for a school competition, her plan to use the prize money on offer to buy a bike.
With its simplicity and clarity, Al-Mansour’s film owes much to Italian noerealism – a plucky young child and a bicycle notwithstanding – but also Jafar Panahi’s films about the experiences of women and children in modern day Iran. Wadjda – and her mother, played by Reem Abdullah – are both struggling with the social barriers they face in Saudi society. Wadjda’s mother appears to be unable to conceive another child, so her husband is looking to take another wife. This is a country where the trappings of contemporary living are prized – high end cars, giant flat screen televisions, shopping malls –yet where an 11 year-old girl isn’t allowed under law to ride a bicycle. “Don’t leave the Quran open,” warns her mother, “in case the Devil spits inside it.” Unmissable.
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