Eschewing binaries of strong/weak female characters, outspoken radicalism and political passivity, Haifaa Al Mansour’s debut feature presents a firm but understated social critique in the form of an endearing coming-of-age story. Adorable 11-year-old Wadjda (Waad Mohammed, natural and full of verve) leads a comfortable existence in a middle-class urban family but pushes back in small ways against the rules that hem her in. She listens to Western music, wears beat-up chucks and skinny jeans underneath her abaya, and befriends a neighborhood boy (Abdullrahman Algohani), with whom she wants to race bikes.
After seeing a beautiful new green bike on her way home from school that would put Pee Wee’s to shame, Wadjda attempts to save up 800 riyal to buy it. But she finds it difficult to earn enough cash selling charm bracelets and delivering notes for other girls. So she eagerly enters a Koran recitation competition at her school in hopes of winning the 1,000-riyal prize. Her efforts to master the text are humorous for their mundane universality (she buys a video game called “Learn the Koran the Easy Way” and keeps getting stuck on the same arcane question).
But they’re also deeply moving. We’re witnessing someone who is not especially devout as she finds her path to God in her own way. The types of girls in the religious club are very different from her friends who like to hang out behind the school and paint their toenails: the star student, who comes from a more conservative family, gets married to a 20-year-old. They are presented as neither vicious fanatics nor cowering victims. All of the girls at the school are simply girls, making their way through a society that, when they become women, may require them to work outside of the home but will still not allow them to drive.
As Wadjda progresses in school, tension increases between her traditionally minded mother (who believes that riding a bike will take a girl’s virginity) and her father, whose family is pressuring him to get a second wife in order to have a male heir. In one particularly somber sequence, Wadjda and her mother clean up a room after her father and uncles have finished eating. When she asks her mother about the family tree that hangs on the wall, her mother chides her, reminding her that it’s only for male family members. Wadjda uses a bobby pin to attach her name to her father’s branch on the tree, but when she enters the room a few days later, the scrap of paper has been taken down. This sad confirmation of the social order happens off screen, but on screen, other women most frequently remind Wadjda of her place. Her strict headmistress wears spiky red-bottomed heels with her niqab, tells students to be quiet during recess because “a woman’s voice is her nakedness,” and always assumes the worst of Wadjda’s behavior.
The contradictions of Saudi society are on display in these women’s actions as well as in the mise en scène, but they are never belabored. On an ad in a mall bathroom someone has taped over the model’s neck and wrist; the guest worker who drives Wadjda’s mother to work lives in far poorer conditions than anyone else in the film. Equally remarkable are the contradictions inherent in context in which the film—the first feature by a woman shot entirely in Saudi Arabia—was made. The country is home to Rotana Group, the Arab world's largest entertainment conglomerate, but has produced less than 10 feature-length films, including documentaries, since 2006. (Prior to that, there were no Saudi-made films.)
Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who owns a majority share in Rotana (and who complains that Forbes is undervaluing his wealth by $6 billion), produced Wadjda, which gave its more liberal displays an official seal of approval. Yet the fact that the prince supports women driving and employs many women in his companies and personal entourage (including the first female Saudi pilot) did not make the conditions of the production any easier for Al Mansour, who (per the government ban on women working with men in public) had to communicate with cast and crew while inside a van using a walkie-talkie and monitors. Despite her significant talents, Waad Mohammed’s family has said they will only allow her to act until she’s 16, and then marry her off—female actors are generally shunned.
The film’s bittersweet denouement is genuinely tender. The closing image of Wadjda at a crossroads gives a sense of freedom and hope, and offers solace to conservative and liberal viewers alike. Average Saudis won’t be able to see Wadjda until it’s on satellite broadcast, since theaters and movie parlors were banned there in the 1980s. The full impact of Al Mansour’s considerable accomplishment is yet to come.