Much of the discussion around Wadjda when it premiered in the United States last year was about how historic it was. The Saudi film was the first to be shot completely in Saudi Arabia, specifically in the capital, Riyadh. Moreover, it was the first Saudi film to be directed by a woman, Haifaa al-Mansour, who often had to work from the back of the van because she wasn't allowed to publicly mix with the male crew members. This is even more remarkable considering how few Saudi films have ever been produced; there are very few (if any) theaters open to the public, with most access to films coming through DVDs and satellite television. The beginning of the Saudi "film industry," as it were, is contestable, but the first Saudi films were only produced in the past 10 years. That the film was able to secure fairly widespread international distribution is an wholly singular feat.
Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), the 10-year-old girl at the center of the film, is singular herself. She's introduced in first scene wearing Converse sneakers with purple laces, while the rest of the girls in her class are wearing plain black shoes. She's a troublemaker at her school, often shunning her headscarf and continuing to play hopscotch in the presence of male construction workers. Her goal is a simple one: she wants to ride a bike and, more specifically, beat her neighbor and friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Algohani) in a race. However, she'll need money to buy her bike, so she enters a Koran recitation competition at her school. Even if she wins, a woman riding a bike - even a young girl - is frowned upon.
From the outset, al-Mansour establishes her film as quietly subversive of Saudi culture, particularly in terms of gender. Wadjda, despite being old enough to start understanding the society that she lives in, consistently rejects the restraints she faces, mostly because they are inconvenient to what she wants. She's not a full-on rebel, nor was she born into a contrarian family; her mother (Reem Abdullah) forbids her to listen to rock music and warns her against buying a bike. Her headmistress, Ms. Hussa (Ahd), is determined to discipline her into falling in line with the other girls. This is a secret strength of al-Mansour's work: she presents a wide variety of women who have very different attitudes about their place in Saudi society, each nuanced and respectful to the character. Though Wadjda and Ms. Hussa are on polar extremes of one another, Wadjda's mother falls somewhere in between, dutifully doing what's expected of her but struggling with her husband (Sultan Al Assaf) taking a second wife because she couldn't give birth to a son. Significantly, al-Mansour keeps the focus fully on the women of the story. The only male characters with significant screentime are Abdullah and Father, and neither of them are nearly as developed as the female characters are.
This matters, because al-Mansour clearly draws from the traditions of Italian neorealism in her film, specifically on-location shooting and the use of amateur actors for major roles, specifically children. She films on-location in Riyadh, and the use of real locations helps give the film authenticity while servicing the film's subversive themes. Similarly, Mohammed is a first-time child actor, and she gives a startlingly brilliant and confident performance as Wadjda. She plays her as a girl wise beyond her years who's not interested in being told what she can and can't do, and one suspects that Mohammed is not completely unlike her character. It's a star-making turn from a true beginner. Abdullah and Ahd are also terrific, playing barely-hidden wounded vulnerability and stern upholding of strict beliefs, respectively. The effect is a film that opens its world up to the viewer, and makes its intentions clear: this is story about Wadjda and the other women in her life. Each woman represents a path her life could take in Saudi society, but she's not ready to give up on her "none of the above" option just yet.
Overall, Wadjda is a beautiful, emotional, intelligent, and magnificent film. It dares to speak out and subvert audience expectations and Saudi society, but it does so with grace, wit, and understated thoughtfulness. It announces al-Mansour as a filmmaker to watch, a brilliant new voice who needs the opportunity to make more films. This film is a stunning, moving debut. A