Written by Guillermo Troncoso.
Wadjda, the first film shot completely within Saudi Arabia and the first film to be shot there by a woman, is a simple tale told simply and at times obviously, but there’s no denying the importance of such a project.
The film tells the story of the titular character, a 10-year-old Saudi girl who is both strong-willed and stubborn. Wadjda listens to mainstream pop music and proudly wears her Chuck Taylor sneakers, even colouring them in black to conceal them after her strict principal tells her not to wear them. After a fight with Abdullah, a young neighbourhood boy, she becomes determined to purchase a bike that she has her eye on. Her goal is to one day beat him in a race. Unfortunately, society’s expectations, her mother’s mission to stop her husband from getting a second wife, and Wadjda’s by the book principal threaten to stop this innocent dream. Nevertheless, Wadjda is determined, and enters her school’s Koran recitation competition in order to win its cash prize. Wadjda is constantly told how she is to think and act, and is told that riding a bike is not only un-lady like, but that her virtue as a woman will be well and truly lost if she does.
Haifaa Al-Mansour, Saudi Arabia’s first female director, clearly has some points that she wants to make. Her screenplay is as inspiring and socially aware, as it is predicable and frustratingly unsubtle. Young Wadjda’s sweet story works as a way for viewers to witness and understand the many limitations imposed on women in this particular society, pushing down the boundaries cemented over generations. In saying this, Al-Mansour is careful to show that many women consider this society’s practices and expectations completely correct, and are proud to be a part of it.
While the messages are certainly significant, Al-Mansour drives them home way too hard, risking bordering on the preachy side of commentary. Certain moments seem to be thrown at audiences in an attempt to get us to understand the plight of those under a male-dominated society, but these moments often fall short of their emotional potential and feel simply tacked on. A group of girls are on their way out of school when their principal tells them to keep it down, for some males may hear them. That’s really all that scene has. Moments like these, while essential to the overall point, are delivered in a somewhat amateur form, unfortunately highlighting Al-Mansour’s lack of experience behind feature films.
The above may sound harsh, but they are realistic qualms that deter from an otherwise fine film. Performances by all are quite good, especially young Waad Mohammed as the young lead. Waad was one of fifty girls who took part in carefully planned auditions, turning up wearing the sneakers that would become her character’s sort-of ‘trademark’. Reem Abdullah is also quite good as Wadjda’s mother, bringing much of the film’s strength.
The mother is a well-developed character, and a big part of what makes the overall film work. Her struggles, like her inability to leave the house unless a male chauffeur drives her, work in delivering most of the points that fail to come across with Wadjda’s narrative. This mother’s pain and desperation as she realises that she may be losing her husband to another wife is convincingly portrayed, culminating in a quietly powerful finale.
This girl’s wish for a bicycle is almost universal. This bicycle is so much more than just a single-track vehicle; it represents the freedom and joy that we all yearn for as children. If the film had only used a little more tact and slightly less sentimentality to deliver its important discussions, it would be a downright winner. Still, Wadjda is simple and sweet; an important film that gives valuable insight into the everyday lives of another culture.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10