Haifaa Al Mansour | Wadjda (2012)

The final scene is a celebration of the joy of cycling, of being young, and of knowing there are still good things in life worth treasuring.


When you’re a kid, few experiences are as magical as getting your first bike. Riding seems like flying, as you zip past earthbound walkers and drivers stuck in traffic, enjoying the breeze in your face and the wings under your wheels. With a bike, you can get yourself to places that would take forever to walk to, and avoid having to convince an adult to drive you there. Plus you can ride with your friends, enjoying the confidence that comes from being a member of a mobile pack, and daring each other to engage in disapproved-of pleasures like hands-free riding, wheelies, and (my favorite) riding at top speed down the schoolyard steps.

So it’s not surprising that 10-year-old Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) wants a bike. There’s just one problem: She lives in Saudi Arabia, where everyone knows that girls and cycling don’t mix because, as her mother (Reem Abdullah) tells her, “You won’t be able to have children if you ride a bike!” Nice try, Mom, but Wadjda is like young Jamal in Slumdog Millionaire, and refuses to give up her dreams just because she was born to disadvantage (in this case, in terms of gender rather than poverty). In fact, you could say that getting a bike becomes her mission quest.

Wadjda’s independence is established in a number of small details. She wears sneakers with purple laces with her school uniform, rather than the plain black ballet flats worn by most girls. When her mother is criticized by a cab driver for being late, Wadjda argues with him. When her best friend, a neighbor boy named Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), snatches her headscarf, Wadjda chases him, even though he’s on a bike and she’s on foot. In fact, that’s the point when she vows to get a bike and beat him in a race, and when Abdullah points out that girls don’t ride bikes, she tells him losing to her will therefore be a “double loss” for him.

There are plenty of forces in Wadjda’s world that would like to destroy her free spirit. The school principal, Ms. Hussa (Ahd) reprimands two girls for laughing, saying, “You forget that women’s voices shouldn’t be heard by men outside. A woman’s voice is her nakedness.” In religion class, the girls are warned not to touch the Koran if they are having their period, and one of the girls in the class later announces her marriage to a much older man. Men gather on nearby rooftops to gawk at the girls in the schoolyard, and a construction worker calls out to Wadjda as she is walking home, saying he’d like to squeeze her “little apples.”

Counterbalancing these repressive societal forces, Wadjda enjoys a close relationship with her mother, who tries to curb her daughter’s wilder instincts without crushing her spirit. They live in a comfortable home and her parents seem to get on well, but for a woman there’s always the possibility your husband will decide to take a second (or third or fourth) wife, setting you to the side in favor of a newer model. It’s a particular threat in this case, because Wadjda’s father (Sultan Al Assaf) has a job that keeps him away for weeks at a time, and her mother had a difficult first pregnancy and is unable to have more children.

Meanwhile, Wadjda decides the best way to earn the money for the bike is to win a religious competition at her school. She’s never been particularly devout before, and her sudden dedication to the Koran gives the principal hope she has turned over a new leaf. Things don’t work out quite as expected, but the experience provides a chance for mother and daughter to become closer, and for the mother to show she recognizes the benefit of Wadjda’s fearless approach to life. The final scene is a celebration of the joy of cycling, of being young, and of knowing that while the deck may be stacked against you and there are many things you can’t control, there are still good things in life worth treasuring.

Wadjda is a classic movie of childhood that, like Jafar Panahi’s 1995 film The White Balloon, honors a child’s-eye view of the world while using its young protagonist to examine the social conditions within a country. Wadjda achieved two important firsts: the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia (Riyadh), and the first feature film directed by a Saudi woman (Haifaa Al-Mansour, who also wrote the screenplay). The cast is entirely from Saudi Arabia and most are first-timers, including the actors playing the two main child roles. In contrast, Reem Abdullah is a star on Saudi television, and Ahd has acted and directed in several award-winning short films.

Directing Wadjda posed some particular challenges for Al-Mansour. Because the crew (from Germany and Saudi Arabia) included men, she often had to direct from within a van, watching the actors on a monitor and communicating by walkie talkie or through her (male) assistant director. Even casting proved challenging: She couldn’t do an open casting call, but had to rely on word of mouth, and many talented girls were not able to participate due to the customs of the country.

So after all that, it’s a miracle that Wadjda exists at all. It’s even more amazing that it’s as good as it is, a charming and heartfelt film that offers a window into the lives of people in a country most of us will never visit. You can form your own opinions about the real reasons for the rule about girls not riding bicycles, but here’s my take on it: If you allow girls a to have some freedom and some fun when they are young, they won’t want to give it up as adults. That could be a problem in a country where women face many restrictions, including not being allowed to drive a car. | Sarah Boslaugh

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