A cinematic gem, Wadjda is a movie that combines pointed political and social commentary, wonderful performances and an extraordinarily charming young heroine you can root for. It’s also billed as the first feature film made in Saudi Arabia, as well as the first Saudi film directed by a woman. The debut director, Haifaa Al-Mansour, has woven together a story with unusual grace.
While the director is clearly politically engaged in the struggle for women’s (aka human) rights, she doesn’t stop the action to make points: The characters illuminate the story and vice versa. The result is a winning and moving drama.
A full article could and should be written about how Al-Mansour convinced the government to allow her to make the movie, in a country that has no legal movie theaters. The film is subtly rather than openly critical of the government, which makes it both more entertaining and more subversive.
Fortunately, Wadjda only superficially resembles those Iranian movies about cute kids from impoverished families that avoid raising any issues about oppression from the regime. Wadjda (played with great presence by Waad Mohammed) is a 10-year-old tomboy from an ordinary family in Riyadh. She likes to hang out with her friend Adbullah (Abdullrahman Al-Gohani); and when she sees a new bicycle in a store, she dreams of buying it so she can race him. We may tend to think of all Saudis as rich, and while there is great oil money in the country, it doesn’t trickle down to everyone.
Wadjda’s mother (Reem Abdullah) is a teacher who must commute every day to a rural area; and because women are not permitted to drive, she and a group of fellow teachers pay a high percentage of their salaries to a foreign worker who takes them in a van. Wadjda’s father (Sultan Al Assaf) is a contractor whose work takes him far from home and whom Wadjda adores.
It’s at school where Wadjda gets into trouble the most. The strict headmistress (Ahd) scolds her for not covering her head enough and many other infractions. In her quest to buy a bicycle, which is not considered appropriate for girls, Wadjda’s life gets even more complicated.
Meanwhile, at home, her father is away, and her mother is distracted.
It turns out her father is preparing to take a new wife, since her gorgeous and spirited mother can’t have more children. Wadjda doesn’t really understand what is going on with her parent’s marriage, but we do. She copes by focusing even more steadfastly on her bicycle quest, even, and very ironically, entering a contest on knowledge of and love for the Koran to achieve her goal.
The authorities may have approved the script, but fortunately for us, they apparently weren’t aware of the irony there. Hoping to buy the bicycle, which will give her the freedom Abdullah has, Wadjda sings the praises of the Koran while chafing against the strictures that oppress her and all women and girls.
In the end, Wadjda is the story of three women. One is the headmistress, a wonderful antagonist. While she may seem cruel, an enforcer for an unjust system, she is all too aware of the fate that awaits girls who break too many rules: a public and painful death. The second is Wadjda’s mother, who has played by the rules all her life and gradually realizes that she can never win the game. At the center there is Wadjda, who is not sure she wants to play by the rules at all.
Waad Mohammed, an incredibly gifted non-professional, leads this wonderful cast. Her heroine is so natural, equally idiosyncratic and charismatic, that she makes you care about her from the moment she steps on screen. Reem Abdullah gives a wonderful performance as a strong woman who is nevertheless vulnerable. Abdullah clearly has acting experience and has had a career on Saudi television. Ahd also has previous acting credits, as well as a career as a director and writer of short films.
Wadjda has moments where it teeters on the brink of becoming too saccharine, but Al-Mansour always pulls back just in time. She is one of the most accomplished directors to come along in years, and I look forward to watching her lead a cinematic revolution.
Written and directed by Haifaa
Hebrew title: Wadjda
Running time: 96 minutes
Some prints have both
Hebrew and English subtitles. Check
with theaters for more information.