Film of the week: Wadjda

The first Saudi teen rebel girl’s bike movie has its eyes on the prize.

Hannah McGill
Updated:

from our August 2013 issue

Narratively, Wadjda is of a type rather than trailblazingly original: the earnest but gently comic tone as well as the content of Samira Makhmalbaf’s films is particularly recalled, as is the emotional trajectory of the ‘kids compete’ documentary strain so beloved by festivals since the success of Spellbound (2002). Still, Haifaa al Mansour’s debut merits recognition for its fresh-feeling take on the trope whereby the travails of a child protagonist mirror those of a wider society. It also has a place in the history books as the first feature film ever to have been shot entirely in Saudi Arabia – and by a female director at that.

That ten-year-old Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is something of a rebel is established when we glimpse the jeans and baseball boots she wears underneath her abaya. She also listens to western pop music on the radio, hangs out with a boy, Abdullah, and has her own small business selling plaited friendship bracelets to her schoolmates.

When Abdullah crows about having a bicycle, Wadjda is inspired to step up her moneymaking activities in order to buy one for herself. As in De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948), a bike symbolises freedom, with potency added here by the fact that the riding of one by a woman is widely frowned on.

The limitations and humiliations conferred by her sex confront Wadjda everywhere she turns, from the building-site worker who sexually harasses her to a family tree on the wall of her home that lists only males. Wadjda is astute enough to realise that she can bypass social or religious approval if she’s financially independent – but, when she endeavours to sell her bracelets to a market trader, she quickly learns that she’ll always be undercut by bulk product imported from China.

For Wadjda’s mother – less entrepreneurial, more traditional, and as in love with and subservient to her elusive husband as her society could wish – the consequences of patriarchal dominance are yet more fraught and contradictory. She loses one job when her driver lets her down, in a country that doesn’t allow women to drive themselves, and the possibility of another when she declines to associate with men unveiled. Her cherished marriage, meanwhile, is thrown off course by genetic happenstance: her failure to produce a male heir.

Wadjda, in the midst of all this, is a bit of a wish-fulfilment figure: a tomboy superheroine who gives pleasurable vent to the audience’s frustration when she answers back to bullies and makes rakish little gestures of defiance. Here, the film rather seeks to have its cake and eat it too (though one could more kindly judge that it’s just optimistic). For political reasons, it needs to show Wadjda as cowed and oppressed; yet for feelgood reasons it wants to show her as indefatigable.

Wadjda also has a bit of a tendency to deploy the very tactics of her enemies in resisting them – confronting her pious teacher with a rumoured sexual indiscretion to show her up; threatening her mother’s unreliable driver with deportation via Abdullah’s politically connected relatives. This too can be interpreted in two ways: as a flaw in the film’s moral logic, or as an observation on how readily children learn from the examples that are set for them.

A final slight rub comes from the fact that the film rewards Wadjda’s unconventionality with conventional satisfactions: winning her bicycle money by outdoing her classmates at Koran recitation, and receiving – with a coy simper – Abdullah’s shy declaration that he’d like to marry her when they’re older. The latter is an odd moment. On one level, it’s just cute. But it’s also saddening, in that it lodges the easy friendship between Abdullah and Wadjda within the system of ownership and capitulation that so annoys her. Worse, it risks coyly reassuring us that our difficult heroine is still marriageable, like a spunky Disney princess.

These are little flaws, however, in the fabric of a first-time feature that doesn’t falter in achieving its main goal: to make clear certain realities of female life experience in Saudi Arabia while also proffering comfort in the form of the hope of a fairer future. Its most receptive audience might be among schoolchildren, although certain elements of Saudi custom that are rushed over in the film (such as the prohibition against women driving) would have to be explained.

And in the August 2013 issue of Sight & Sound

Kid on a bike

The first film ever to be shot in Saudi Arabia by the country’s first female director, Wadjda charts the injustices faced by Saudi women through the eyes of a girl who dreams of a bycicle. Haifaa al Mansour explains how she made her film in a land where cinemas are illegal. By Isabel Stevens.

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  • Sight & Sound: the August 2013 issue

    Sight & Sound: the August 2013 issue

    In this issue: Frances Ha’s Greta Gerwig – the most exciting actress in America? Plus Ryan Gosling in Only God Forgives, Wadjda, The Wall,...

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