Not only is ‘Wadjda’ the first feature film ever made in Saudi Arabia but also marks as the first feature length film to be made by a female Saudi director. This alone is a mesmerizing and brave accomplishment that succeeds on so many levels.
Directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, the film revolves around Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), an obstinate and free-spirited 10-year-old girl living in the misogynistic society of Saudi Arabia. After seeing a bicycle pass by, she becomes fixated on buying it so she can challenge her friend, Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani) to a race. In order to raise the money needed, she enters a Koran recitation competition at her school with a grand prize that will allow her to purchase the bicycle from a local retail store. But she soon discovers that it is a strong taboo for a girl to ride a bicycle in her society, including the repercussions that come with it.
‘Wadjda’ is delightful to watch. Although it touches on the bleak subject matter of gender inequality, the film is quite jovial and light-hearted. Waad Mohammed’s warmth and uniqueness as Wadjda is highly contagious and terrifically juxtaposes with the stark landscape of wartime Riyadh. Abdullrahman Al Gohani is also superb as Wadjda’s friend, Abdullah, both in their debut performances.
‘Wadjda’ often highlights gender inequality, as seen when Wadjda’s mother (Reem Abdullah) is taxied to work everyday, as women are forbidden to drive or when Wadjda’s father (Sultan Al Assaf) attempts to marry a second wife in the hope of one day having a son. Although the film highlights the everyday requirements Saudi women are encumbered with, one of its greatest achievements is that it does not antagonize men in the way they treat women, but merely affirms it as a social custom in Saudi Arabia. In a country where women’s rights are rarely a topic of debate, it is promising to see such a film on global cinema screens. Hopefully, ‘Wadjda’ sparks people to realise what is happening around the world and offer a more promising future for the next generation of Saudi women.
With terrific acting and a buoyant script, ‘Wadjda’ is truly commendable. The story is quite simple for a film with such a heavy subject matter, perhaps too simple at times, but considering the cultural circumstances of the production, Al-Mansour has done a remarkable job in bringing it to life.
Wadjda is in Australian cinemas from 20 March through Entertainment One.