PLOT: A ten-year-old from Saudi Arabia named Wadjda (Mohammed) enters a Koran-reciting contest so that she can use the prize money to buy a bike.
WHO'S IT FOR? Those who like to witness revolutions.
Wadjda is a film from a country that doesn't have movie theaters. It is about archaic rules for women in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a country that fears gender mixing at public film screenings. Saudi Arabia has a slowly growing film scene, but such homemade products, such as first-Saudi-made movie titled in 2006 Keif al-Hal? (translated to "How are you?") can only be viewed in private living spaces. Showtime Arabia hooked people up with Keif al-Hal, and TV is a handy way to get censored media. Even video stores exist, but scenes of kissing and similar activities have been cut out. When the first public screening in 30 years in the capitol of Riyadh was held for the comedy Menahi in 2009, only men were allowed to participate. Girls could also attend if they were less than ten years old, but any female older than that was not admitted.
Three years later after this event comes a film about a 10-year-old girl who would not be admitted to the Menahi screening. That film is Wadjda, a fictional story, but with its reality immediately reflective of the current state of moral control in Saudi Arabia. Wadjda is the first movie to be directed by a woman from Saudi Arabia, Haifaa Al-Mansour. Amongst its numerous producers, it is worth pointing out that the film was funded by Prince Alwaleed bin-Talal, working through his film production company Rotuna, who also produced landmark film Menahi.
As the film's existence is a revolution itself, so does its story feature one on a smaller scale. Title character Wadjda is a young girl who hasn't been fully acclimated to the gender rules of her culture like her mother and teachers have. She wears scuffed-up Converse shoes, listens to loud western rock music, and plays violent video games. She even recognizes a piece of long white garb by associating it with something that could be seen in The Matrix.
However, most radically, Wadjda wants to have a bike of her own so that she can beat a boy friend at a race. She doesn't know the implications that come with wanting a bike. Her mother has to pay a man for a tiresome commute everyday because women are not allowed to drive; one can imagine the mother's frustration then when she tries to tell Wadjda that women are not permitted to ride bicycles.
While rooting for Wadjda (with a sprightly performance from Mohammed) keeps us invested in this small tale of a big revolution, Al-Mansour's story is most compelling as a presentation of these archaic gender rules. This film gets right up in the face of these guidelines, and broadcasts them to the world. In this regard, Wadjda is special because its commentary about these rules comes specifically from the female experience. Not only is she a filmmaker from Saudi Arabia (the same can't be said for all other filmmakers of Saudi films), Al-Mansour herself had to direct certain scenes within the shelter of a van so as to not upset moral rules within conservative Riyadh (this makes the film's wide shots so liberating that Wadjda they might as well have been shot on IMAX).
Al-Mansour shows these frustrating gender inequalities as they are, gracefully fitting them within her story. There's a brief moment in which Wadjda's classmate, who can't be much older than her, is revealed to have been married to a man who is twenty years old. There's another moment, in which Wadjda and her mother prepare food for Wadjda's estranged father (who dumped her mother because she can have no more children), and Wadjda walks the food into the other room for the father and his friends to enjoy. Hard cut to later, in which the men are now gone, the room is relatively messy, and the plate is half eaten, abandoned as leftovers for those who could not originally be seen with the men. These are moments among many that make Wadjda, and its declarations, unforgettable.
The initial hook of Wadjda is simple, and not unlike other foreign films that have used a quest for a specific thing as an opportunity for wide scope neorealism about the current conditions of a country. For example, The Bicycle Thief is more than just a bicycle, Children of Heaven is more than just about shoes, but both have a simple grip on an international audience who recognize the universal feelings of progress, and yearn for these underdogs to achieve fast tracks to brighter futures. Wadjda is a film that fits in neatly with these worldly classics, and even touts its own lack of of saccharine climax to boot. Even if it leaves our hero at a crossroads, Wadjda is hopeful with its story, and the exciting world-changing progress that it represents.
FINAL SCORE: 8/10