Featuring: Waad Mohammed, Reem Abdullah, Abdullrahman Al Gohani, Sultan Al Assaf, Ahd Kamel
Director: Haifaa Al Mansour
Writer: Haifaa Al Mansour
Movie website: www.sonyclassics.com/wadjda/
Australian release date: March 20, 2014
Verdict: A charmer with teeth that gives a fascinating keyhole glimpse of everyday life in Saudi Arabia.
Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is a spirited, rebellious 10-year-old Saudi Arabian girl who yearns to have her own bicycle like her male friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani). She is undaunted by the discouragement of her mother (Reem Abdullah), or the fact that girls riding bicycles are frowned upon in their conservative Islamic society. When she sees a shiny new green bike displayed in front of a local shop, she determines to buy it. A Koran recital competition at her school with prize money covering the cost of the bike provides her with the opportunity to realise her dream. She has never taken much interest in formal religious study, but fired up with her new and decidedly secular motive she sets out to win the competition.
This is the first Saudi Arabian feature film to be shot entirely within the national borders. Remarkably, it is directed by a woman, Sydney-trained Haifaa Al Mansour. Wadjda is her feature debut, and a fine one it is – charming and entertaining on one level, intrinsically subversive in its underlying agenda. In simply (although necessarily selectively) depicting everyday life in Saudi Arabia from the perspective of the delightful protagonist and her mother, Haifee Al Mansour exposes some of the difficulties and injustices Saudi females face purely on the basis of their gender, while shrewdly avoiding overtly confrontational gender politics or open criticism of the religion-based patriarchy.
Wadjda’s mother is distracted much of the time, fearful that her in-laws will convince her husband to divorce her and take a new wife because she has not borne him a son. Her husband (Sultan Al Assaf) still loves her and is clearly besotted with his daughter Wadjda, who adores him, yet the family pressure to have a male heir is formidable, placing the family unit in jeopardy. Thus, males as well as females are shown to be victims of the extreme attitudes that are embedded in Saudi society.
That said, Saudis are shown to be essentially the same as people anywhere – as, of course, they surely are. Joy and humour survives in the culture of oppression, women gossip on the phone, wear fashionable high heels beneath their black head-to-toe garb, chide their husbands, complain about rude drivers, and so on.
Waad Mohammed is wonderful as Wadjda, an endearing, buoyant personality. She is a mischievous tomboy who wants nothing more than to be able to race her bike-riding best friend Abdullah on her own wheels. Cheekily entrepreneurial, she strives to accumulate savings to realise her dream. She is a bit of a handful in class, and uninterested in the fundamentalist religious instruction that is part and parcel of her school life. That is, until she learns of the prize money on offer to the winner of the school Koran recital competition, whereupon she has a dramatic change of attitude that is a source of bemusement, then admiration, for her teachers. Little do they know…
There are a few clunky lines of dialogue, but really, that is small bickies. Overall, this is a marvellous debut from a courageous and canny director who gives us a fascinating glimpse into ordinary life in Saudi Arabia, while applying a deftly light touch in tackling some big issues without ever losing sight of the warming, very human story at the heart of her film. Do not miss.
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