Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is a 10-year-old girl living in a suburb of Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. Although she lives in a conservative world, Wadjda is fun loving, entrepreneurial and rebellious. She's determined to fight for her dreams, which include saving enough money to buy a bicycle, so she can race her friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani). Wadjda lives at home with her parents, who are loving if a little distracted. Her father (Sultan al Assaf ) isn't around much, and her mother (Reem Abdullah) is convinced he's busy looking for a second wife.
Review by Louise Keller:
This charming and deceptively simple film about a rebellious young Saudi girl with a dream that defies the culture in which she lives, is a breath of fresh air; the insight into lifestyle and culture fascinating. The debut feature of Saudi's first woman filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour, Wadjda is an exploration of freedom in a country in which there is little.
The fact that 10 year old Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is quietly determined to buy herself a bike, so she can race it against her friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani) is not a life-changer, yet the way she goes about her goal with grit, courage and innovation is symbolic of how small things are not really small at all. When Wadjda sees the green bike of her dreams appear as if by magic on the top of a wall, as it is transported on the top of a truck, it symbolizes the freedom she is clearly chasing. In her first film role, 12 year old Mohammed is a delight, delivering a winning naturalistic performance, which Al-Mansour directs beautifully.
When we first meet Wadjda at school, the first thing we notice about her is that she is wearing lace-up sneakers under her traditional black cloak. But that is not all. She is clearly an individual and pays little notice to her strict teacher Ms Hussa (Ahd), who is quick to lay down the rules: rules like a woman's voice is her nakedness and respectable girls keep out of men's sight lines. There is nothing unusual about Wadjda's relationships with her parents - she has an easy rapport with her father and a warm closeness with her mother (Reem Abdullah, outstanding), who explains to her that girls can't ride bikes because it jeopardises their chances of having children.
The story traces Wadjda's journey as she puts in an all-out effort to win the school Koran competition, whose cash prize of 1,000 riyals promises to be enough to buy the precious bike. But there are other things happening in Wadjda's life, including her mother's angst at the possibility of her father taking another (more fertile) wife.
Al-Mansour paints the brushstrokes of her story simply and without histrionics, offering a potent insight into a culture where women are covered from head to toe and are restricted in every way. One of my favourite moments is the one in which Wadjda's little friend Abdullah declares (while riding his bike) that he would like to marry her one day. It is one of the special gems in this treasure of a film that offers light and hope to women in a society in which much more is needed.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
The bicycle as a symbol of freedom ain't unique, but it ain't bad, bringing with it associated images of hair flying in the wind (except in over-regulated countries where helmets have to be worn), the breeze of movement, closeness to nature, absence of noisy motor - and no back seat driver to distract or annoy you. This symbol becomes the vehicle for metaphor in Haifaa Al Mansour's acclaimed and appreciated feature, Wadjda, from Saudi Arabia. Everything a bicycle stands for, Saudi doesn't, especially when Wadjda is a pre-teen girl, bumping into the walls of strict & traditional Islam.
The film disguises its liberal editorial message with a superbly veiled screenplay; we're just looking ... but of course, we're also seeing, a much more invasive activity. It's a bit like the Pesher technique, in which ancient political / religious activists wrote on one level, but communicated with the cognoscenti on a deeper one. The superficial level was intended for the masses, the unsophisticates who loved simple stories, who soaked up the righteousness, the superstitions of ancient times preserved in the aspic of religion.
The film takes us inside Saudi culture in a personal and detailed way, right down to the banalities of daily life, where women and men live in a gender-declared apartheid every bit as insidious and inhumane as the racial one of history - except it is under the cloak of religious edict, not racist ignorance. Understated but powerfully real, that selective morality feeds the fires of our indignation.
As we follow Wadjda play with her young bicycled friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), we recognise (eventually) that Al Mansour sees a better future for women in Islam, one in which they, too, can ride the bikes of life freely. But not yet.
The film's top layer (hardly superficial) is filled with minute incidents that come together like a mosaic, drawing us into Wadjda's world. Clearly Al Mansour knew what she was looking for when she cast Waad Mohammed, whose expressive face is different enough from the other girls to make her stand out - and her calm, pensive performance acts like a magnet for our perceptions. It's a film about a revolutionary, told with the finesse of an evolutionary.
Email this article
(Saudi Arabia/Germany, 2012)
CAST: Waad Mohammed, Reem Abdullah, Abdullrahman Al Gohani, Sultan al Assaf, Ahd
PRODUCER: Gerhard Meixner, Roman Paul
DIRECTOR: Haifaa Al Mansour
SCRIPT: Haifaa Al Mansour
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Lutz Reitemeier
EDITOR: Andreas Wodraschke
MUSIC: Max Richter
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Thomas Molt
RUNNING TIME: 98 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Hopscotch
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: March 20, 2014