Wadjda is the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, a country where cinemas are not permitted. Director Haifaa Al Mansour is also the nation’s first female filmmaker. Combined with the fact all of the lead roles are female, there’s no question Wadjda breaks bold new ground.
In the capital city of Riyadh, 10-year-old Wadjda rebels against the many ways she is oppressed because of her gender.
She is to cover her head and face, remove herself from the sight of men in public, abstain from joining her male friends in riding bikes and even abstain from ever driving a car. And this is nowhere near the worst of it.
In spite of these restrictions, Wadjda’s perseverance, hope and determination inspire the viewer.
Central to the story is her friendship with a boy her age, Abdullah. The friendship is heart-warming but socially frowned upon, thus all the more celebrated in its portrayal.
It serves as a reminder that boys don’t start out subjugating women, just as girls don’t begin life viewing themselves as second-rate citizens – or unable to ride a bike.
Wadjda’s deep desire for her own bike in order to race Abdullah lays the foundation for the film. To ride a bike seems like such a minor privilege and a small mercy for her to request – but in Saudi Arabia, it’s seen as a disgrace for a female to ride a bike.
The audience knows Wadjda deserves better treatment. A strong, smart, enterprising girl, we see her efforts quashed, her desires marginalised and her freedoms restricted all in an effort to confine and control an entire gender.
Both poignant and life-affirming, the film is by no means a gruelling experience.
In fact its light tone and often sweet dialogue make it a joy, even though its portrayal of the oppression of women in Saudi Arabia is so total and, consequently, enraging.
The painful realisation is that these everyday inhumane tragedies are happening right now – in societies that have TV, PlayStations and shopping malls.
Wadjda’s mother spends her energy trying to prevent her husband from taking a second wife due to the fact she has been unable to bear a son.
The tiny victories that allow the girl and her mother to get through their ‘lot’ in life are both tragic and beautiful.
A relatable humanity is illustrated between them in scenes where they try on new clothes, sing songs, bait each other and cook together.
Her father is portrayed as both loving and careless; familiar yet cold, a product himself of cultural distortions and religious indoctrination.
The presence of the mother’s more liberated friend is a clear juxtaposition. She works a full time job at a hospital – which requires her to interact with men who aren’t her husband – and she is visibly happy. This upsets Wadjda’s mother who remains loyal to her clear ideas of right and wrong, refusing to apply for a similar job as her friend suggests.
Wadjda fails to share her mother’s disgust and naturally responds in kind to the friendliness of the hospital staff.
The innocence of a child’s view in this moment (and many others) gives this film its poignancy and power.
Abdullah and Wadjda have not had their beliefs distorted by cultural and religious teaching (not fully; not yet). Wadjda is resourceful and charming, which induces those around her, male or female, to treat her as she sees herself – as equal.
Incrementally she transforms some of the people close to her, while those most set in their dogmatic views rage against her behaviour in fear.
Here’s the rub, though – they rage in vain. Wadjda still believes in the equal treatment she’s owed despite their trying to subdue her, and people continue to love her regardless of her rebelliousness.
How a story could be so light, inspiring and tragic all at once, is quite a feat.
It’s worth experiencing it for yourself to get an idea about how a very different ‘half’ live.