It’s interesting how some countries with so many restrictions come up with films that are way superior in quality compared to the films coming from countries that are relatively more progressive. They arrive calmly, tell their seemingly simple stories in a simple style, and subtly make defiant statements without creating much of a ruckus. Films from Iran are classic examples. So it’s a big deal when a film finally comes out from an Arab country that is notorious for its stringent and harsh laws and manages to make a really good impression regardless of whether it was able to catch the attention of enough people from the rest of the world or not. But this film exists and it’s a good thing that it does. Say hello to Saudi Arabian filmmaker Haifaa al-Mansour’s Wadjda.
Not only does this film have the distinction of being the first feature film to come out of Saudi Arabia (or a film that is completely shot inside the country for that matter) but it also has a female filmmaker at its helm. The story is about a rebellious Saudi girl who wants to drive a bicycle badly. Now, this is something that is unheard of in a country where movie theaters are banned and women are not allowed to drive. So how did a filmmaker get away with this? The lead character is a tomboyish preteen girl played by Waad Mohammad. She is an extremely smart, perceptive, independent and has a great sense of humor. She inhabits an extremely conservative and patriarchal environment where women are not allowed to go out without wearing their hijabs and are forbidden from speaking and laughing loudly or loitering around areas where men are present. She lives with her mom who is trying so hard to stop her husband – who occasionally drops in – from marrying a second woman.
Wadjda is someone who doesn’t give a damn about these things and is often dismissive of her friends’ and teachers’ behavior. Her condescending principal keeps a watchful eye over all the students – it’s a “girls only” school, naturally – and forbids them from carrying anything that “provokes sinful thoughts and actions”. At one point, her principal chides her for carrying Western music tapes – love songs – in her bag. Even her mother calls them “evil stuff”. One day she sees a neighborhood riding a bicycle and she suddenly gets the urge to ride on herself. But it costs 800 riyals and so she comes up with a plan to save some money. She has a “side business” making bracelets made out of colorful threads and this she sells to her schoolmates for a little extra cash. But whatever she is saving up is not enough so she asks her mom for the money. Obviously, she declines.
There is a funny moment when Wadjda brings this boy up to the terrace of her home and asks him to bring his bike along. She tries riding it but falls down and this is witnessed by her mom. Wadjda tells her that she is bleeding and her mom’s reaction is, “Where are you bleeding from? Your virginity!” and Wadjda once again ridicules her mom’s overreaction. In another scene, her mom tells her that a woman who rides a bike won’t be able to have children. Anyway, opportunity comes knocking one day when the school announces a Koran-reciting competition. The prize money is 1000 riyals. Wadjda decides to take part. Whether she wins or not I’m going to tell you but the ending is unpredictable, applause-worthy and is guaranteed to put a smile on your face. This is what I call one of those true feminist films and gives us an insight on what it means to be a woman in Arab countries, especially one like Saudi Arabia.