Wadjda is remarkable. It’s not only the first feature-length film to be made entirely in Saudi Arabia, where public cinemas are currently illegal; it’s also the first from a female director (Haifaa Al-Mansour).
Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is 10 years old and lives with her mother (Reem Abdullah) in Riyadh. We immediately see her as a rebellious character, wearing scruffy Converse underneath her abaya and listening to western music in her bedroom. Wadjda is witty, determined, and defiant. Making and selling forbidden bracelets at school, she happily breaks the rules if it means getting what she wants.
Except now, Wadjda wants to ride a bike. She obsesses over owning the green bicycle displayed outside a local shop and winning a race against Abdullah, a neighbourhood boy. But living in a fiercely conservative society makes this a challenge. Wadjda is constantly told “no” because, of course, respectable girls don’t ride bikes. She’s left with no choice but to play by the rules in order to catch her dream.
At the same time, Wadjda’s mother has her own struggles, from arranging transport for her job as a teacher to her insecurities surrounding Wadja’s father. The relationship between Wadjda and her mother is particularly enjoyable to watch, with an unconventional, almost Gilmore Girls style dynamic. And when all seems lost, with both Wadjda’s father and the dream of the bicycle becoming increasingly absent, we see the love and strength between mother and daughter is, in fact, sufficient enough.
Wadjda works so well because it’s lively, articulate, and intelligent. It explores the traditions of Arab family life and religion, while simultaneously throwing open an innocent and playful story of youthful rebellion. Through this, Al-Mansour also tackles a serious cultural commentary about the position of women in Arab culture and society. Wadjda is a triumph in all senses: heartfelt, moving, and a true historical landmark for Arab cinema.