Arts Review, Movies


Wadjda featured image

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Haifaa Al-Mansour, director and script

Starring: Waad Mohammed (Wadjda), Reem Abdullah (mother), Abdullrahman Al Gohani (Abdullah), Ahd (Ms. Hussa), Sultan Al Assaf (father), Dana Abdulliah (Salma), Rehab Ahmed (Noura)

The buzz

Considerable. This is the first Saudi Arabian feature film directed by a woman, Haifaa Al-Mansour. It’s so successful that it’s become the first Saudi Arabian entry into the Best Foreign Film Oscar sweepstakes. Critics adore this film and it’s a shoe-in to get an Oscar nomination.

Wadjda had its brilliant premiere at the Venice Film Festival, and like Gravity, it won minor awards there. The film has now won prizes at Dubai, Fribourg, Rotterdam, Palm Springs and Talinn, as well as Venice.

The genres

Coming-of-age drama; marital discord melodrama; quietly subversive political film

The premise

Wadjda, a feisty 11-year-old girl wants to buy a bike to beat her friend Abdullah in a race. In the suburb of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where she lives, Wadjda lives a circumscribed life in an orthodox Muslim society. In fact, girls aren’t supposed to ride bikes or sing loudly or walk in the street without a headscarf; once they’re older, they must wear a hijab everywhere.

Nonetheless, Wadjda persists in her dream, working various scams to raise money for her bike. She helps one girl at her school meet a boy, which causes a scandal. Luckily, she emerges unscathed. Ms. Hussa, who runs Wadjda’s school, is a strict disciplinarian and the young girl continually runs afoul of her.

At home, Wadjda has two devoted parents—but their own relationship is in trouble. Her mother can’t conceive anymore and her father’s family wants him to marry a second wife. More problems ensue when Iqbal, their driver, becomes rude and abusive to Wadjda’s mother.

Ever persistent, funny and optimistic, Wadjda decides to enter a Qu’ran contest at her school. The prize money would give her enough funds to buy her bike—and Ms. Hussa approves of her sudden “change of heart.”

The film moves to a series of bittersweet denouements. Wadjda and her mother come to a greater understanding of each other—and some of the young girl’s desires come to pass.

The performances

Waad Mohammed is superb as Wadjda. Her performance is a revelation: she embodies the spunky and truthful titular character effortlessly well. Fine in smaller parts are: Reem Abdullah (mother), Abdullrahman Al Gohani (Abdullah) and Ahd (Ms. Hussa).

The writer/director

It’s the first film for Haifaa Al-Mansour and she’s done an excellent job as both the writer and director despite severe limitations. For example, she couldn’t direct visibly when the action was shot outside of Wadjda’s school or home; Al-Mansour had to hide in a truck when the crew shots exteriors.

Inspired by de Sica’s The Bicycle Thief and other Italian neo-realist films and the Iranian “children’s dramas’ of the ’90s (directed by Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf), she has fashioned a brilliant character study of a likeable young girl—and made some subtle comments on the society and political situation in which she lives.

The skinny

Wadjda is a simple, humanistic film with no special f/x. It shows life from the “inside” in modern Saudi Arabia and tells an effective growing-of-age tale. It should be seen by mature audiences here.

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