That this film was made at all is quite remarkable. This is a country where cinema is banned. The director is a woman. Saudi Arabia is famously one of the most conservative Muslim countries and particularly restrictive on women's rights. They must observe strict purdah and are not allowed to drive cars. Husbands can divorce a wife who does not produce a son and take a new one without impediment.
It is in this milieu that the film takes place. But the film is not a polemic against the status quo. It is a window into a society which is largely unfamiliar to most of the west. It is a simple story of one spunky ten year old girl from an ordinary family and her determination to own a bicycle. While it is not strictly prohibited, it is just not done. But Wadjda is not an ordinary girl. She is a fiercely independent tomboy who does not toe the line in her very strict girls school. Her best friend is a boy and she wears high tops, much to the disapproval of her teacher. She goes to extreme lengths to get the money to buy the bicycle, and when she finally gets it - it is a minor miracle and a major triumph.
What is fascinating about the film is seeing the lives of the women behind the burqua - the teachers, the wives and the young girls. That they must hide even their voices from men and that a wife must be in all ways subservient to a husband or the laws of the Koran. But in their unguarded moments they are just like women everywhere....
loyal, affectionate, teasing, funny, and vain. It comes as a shock each time we see the women inside dressing and making themselves look attractive only to completely cover themselves whenever they step outside. Wadjda’s small act of defiance is only possible because she is ten years old. And one gets the sense that it might be her last.
Waad Mohammad (Wadjda) and Reem Abdullah (the mother) are both wonderful and very naturalistic. The direction feels so self-assured that it is hard to believe that this is a first effort. While it may arouse feelings of outrage in a western audience, it is clearly not how the director feels. She is simply telling a story in an affectionate and appealing way. One can only hope that Al-Mansour finds the wherewithal to do more.
Review by Belle McIntyre