Wadjda Reveals the Lives of Saudi Girls

<i>Wadjda</i> Reveals the Lives of Saudi Girls

Like all kid protagonists in movies, Wadjda's Wadjda wants one pure thing so much that the very concept of want shades into need. If this plucky Saudi Arabian girl (played by preteen Waad Mohammed) doesn't get a bicycle, it seems, some fundamental quality of hers might not survive adolescence. Her yen for small rebellions seems staked on it, as does her sense that she can grow up to be a person of her choosing. But that bike is a pricey 800 riyals, and Wadjda's mother's teaching salary is tied up in car services—women in the Kingdom are forbidden to drive—and in a smashing new dress chosen to win back the attention of Wadjda's father, a man who, as is his right, is scouting around for a newer, presumably younger wife. Even worse, from Wadjda's perspective: The very thought of a girl on a bike is enough to send her family into a panic. At one point, her mother—a radiant, heartbreaking Reem Abdullah—catches Wadjda cycling in circles on a bike borrowed from a boy named Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), a likable kid naïve enough to believe he can be best friends with a girl without consequences. Wadjda takes a spill, hitting concrete; her mother sees a flash of blood and immediately fears that Wadjda has destroyed the key to a future happier than her own—her hymen.

It isn't. Wadjda has just skinned her knee.

A simple, solid, deeply affecting film, Wadjda is something rare: the work of a female Saudi filmmaker, Haifaa Al Mansour, and a feature from a country that has long outlawed cinemas. It's a hard-to-shake look at the everyday realities of being a woman—or growing to be a woman—in a country that strictly limits what a woman can be. We see Wadjda given, with warm ceremony, her first abaya, a hand-me-down from mom necessary after a teacher at Wadjda's madrassa tells the young girl she's now old enough to have to start fully covering herself. We see Wadjda and her schoolmates, bare-faced but robed from head to toe, chased off their secluded recess ground because they can be seen by the construction workers on a neighboring building. (Wadjda's rebellions involve mild insouciance, mixtapes of rock music, and the inked-up Converse All Stars that jut from just beneath her proscribed grab.)

Location Info


Lincoln Plaza Cinemas

1886 Broadway
New York, NY 10023

Category: Movie Theaters

Region: West 60s


Written and directed by Haifaa Al Mansour
Sony Pictures Classics
Opens September 13, Lincoln Plaza Cinemas

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And we see another girl, Wadjda's age, back at school the weekend after getting married off, sharing photos of herself in her wedding gown. A teacher snatches the snapshots away—photographs are not allowed at school.

Mohammed's charisma and the film's appreciation for the hopefulness of children keep all this from becoming too grim to bear. Just seeing life in Riyadh is a revelation. Al Mansour frames the city's slab-like structures in static compositions, slightly off-center, and then sets the kids loose to dash around and through them. The feeling is of effervescence among a stolid permanence.

To earn money for the bike, Wadjda improvises some canny capitalism, sometimes taking advantage of older people whose secrets she sees. Later, hoping to win a small fortune, Wadjda crams for a shot at winning a school contest for sutra memorization and recitation. The irony is delicious: She hopes to score the cash to rebel, gently, against her theocracy by willing herself into a first-rate conformist. Be ready to bawl at the end.

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The total lack of films that come out of Saudi Arabia make Wadjda,a Saudi film by Haiffa Al-Mansour, instantly alluring. Haiffa Al-Mansour is already accredited as being the first successful woman filmmaker in Saudi Arabia’s history.

The precocious 10-year Wadjda is growing up in Riyadh where she wants nothing more than a shiny new bicycle, but not only is she a little short on riyals, in Saudi Arabia women do not to ride bicycles. Saudi moral code bans woman from driving, going out in public unveiled, living unaccompanied, leaving the country alone, and opposing their husbands’ orders in any way.

Small details make grand impressions: In an all girls school teenage students paint their toenails, a sin, and are publicly vilified for it. The mere possibly that workmen half a mile awaymight see school girls playing in their courtyard forces all the girls to rush inside, lest they be judged impure. Pubescent girls are considered tainted and must use a tissue just to flip the pages of Koran.

In a country where cinemas are banned, Riyadh is not exactly a city where women can just go around shooting films. Females mixing with male co-workers would bring dire consequences. Al-Mansour shot the film anyway, directing much of it from the back of a van, and the result is a film representing the triumph of the defiant feminine spirit, in all forms.

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