Quiet rage against Saudi sexist cycle

Wadjda (PG). Director: Haifaa al-Mansour. Starring: Reem Abdullah, Waad Mohammed, Abdullrahman Algohani, Sultan Al Assaf, Ahd Kamel. 97 minutes

Wadjda is the first feature shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, and the first to be made by a female Saudi director. For al-Mansour to have achieved this in a country where the rights and dignity of women are subjugated to patriarchal norms is remarkable. Consider this in light of the fact that the film concerns itself with the pressures women experience in this rigidly patriarchal society and it is fair to say that Wadjda is an innately political work. 

But this assessment sells it short. Wadjda is primarily a film not about politics but about humanity. It is a charming, well-written and entertaining coming-of-age story whose characters find self-empowerment and connection not in rabble-rousing but in small acts of rebellion. Central among them is the 11-year-old title character (Waad), whose defiance of oppressive social norms crystalises in an ambition to purchase a bicycle.

Waad's performance is wonderful, by turns earnest and impish. At first Wadjda attempts to raise money selling homemade braided bracelets and mix-tapes to students at her school. When the headmistress Ms Hussa (Kamel) puts an end to these endeavours, she turns instead to training for a Quran recitation contest with a cash prize. Her apparent newfound devotion impresses her teachers, who don't suspect her material objective.

Wadjda's experiences are woven with those of her mother (Abdullah), who is impatient with her daughter's two-wheeled ambitions (for a woman to ride a bike is 'dishonourable') but also distracted by her certainty that her husband (Al Assaf) is searching for a second wife. Wadjda herself adores and is adored by her father, but has to contend with the heartbreaking realisation that as a daughter, not a son, she is inadequate in his eyes.

This is a small film that captures the mundane details of daily life of Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. But it also contains touches of wonder, borderline mysticism, which make it loom large in the imagination, despite its small scale. Wadjda's coveted bicycle first appears as a vision, speeding of its own volition along the top of a wall. It's an illusion — the bike is propped on the bed of a truck that is driving past on the other side of the wall. But mundane reality doesn't kill the magic of that first sighting, for either Wadjda or the audience.

The film's touching final scene (without giving too much away) finds mother and daughter standing on the roof of their house, backs turned to a sky lit by fireworks — the pyrotechnic climax to a celebration from which they have been deliberately excluded, and which represents the worst of patriarchal indifference. Although Wadjda deals sweetly with a pre-teen romance between Wadjda and her friend, Abdullah (Algohani), ultimately the film implies a fine, fierce hope that Wadjda's fate will not be dictated by her relationships to the men in her life.


Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is the assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Wadjda, Haifaa al-Mansour, Reem Abdullah, Waad Mohammed, Abdullrahman Algohani, Sultan Al Assaf, Ahd Kamel



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