This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 16th March 2014
Notable for being the first feature film from Saudi Arabia to be made by a woman, Wadjda is the feelgood tale of an industrious, pop music-loving young girl who is prepared to fight the limits of her sex in order to follow her dream.
Indeed, director Haifaa Al-Mansour has achieved a great deal with her first full-length movie. Obliged to shoot many of the exterior scenes surreptiously from inside a van (owing to the Kingdom’s segregation laws about men and women working together), she has produced an effortlessly delightful tale of courage in the face of adversity, thanks to the perfect casting of first-time actor Waad Mohammed in the titular role. Scuffing her Chuck Taylors in the dusty streets as she implores a shopkeeper not to sell the bicycle she has her heart set on, Wadjda’s quest is simple but compelling: to find the money needed to buy the vehicle that will win her equality and emancipation.
The film mostly wins us over by being as charming as its plucky protaganist, but if that doesn’t sound meaty enough, rest assured that what’s really fascinating is the unprecedented insight into the restrictive life of the Saudi woman. Played as matter-of-fact rather than outraged or campaigning, it’s an education all the more powerful and (for Western audiences, at any rate) incredible as we hear the female teacher proclaim “A woman’s voice is her nakedness – not to be heard by men outside” as she ushers the children indoors and chides them when their heads fall uncovered.
Given the central premise revolves around the cultural fait accompli that “girls don’t ride bikes”, it is also bitterly humorous when Wadjda acknowledges that should she win the race against her friend Abdullah, losing to a girl would make his a double loss. Harder to stomach is the awfulness of Wadjda’s beautiful mother having to contemplate sharing her beloved husband with other brides.
Although straightforward in its storytelling, with some performances occasionally feeling a little “acty”, nothing can detract from this being a warm-hearted, optimistic tale.