We know immediately that Wadjda is different. Sticking out from beneath her long black garment is a pair of well-worn, black Converse shoes. They stand in stark opposition to the conservative flats and loafers of her peers. Wadjda (2012), written and directed by Haifaa al-Mansour, is a subversive film that examines the everyday life of a young girl living in Saudi Arabia. The film is notable as it is the first feature-length film made by a female Saudi director, and is also Saudi Arabia’s first entry into the Academy Awards Best Foreign Language Film category.
Al-Mansour presents a hopeful tale that encapsulates the reality of Saudi women’s daily life. Wadjda, played by Waad Mohammed, is a willful young girl with an entrepreneurial spirit, whose greatest wish is to own her own bicycle. She has a strong relationship with her mother, and strives for the acceptance and approval of her father (who is rarely home.) Her one true friend is a young boy named Abdullah, who does what he can to help her achieve her dream of learning to ride and owning her own bike. When Wadjda’s mother refuses to help her buy a bike, Wadjda must rely on herself to raise the money. She sells bracelets, favours and even enters her school’s annual Qu’ran contest in an effort to win first place and the prize money that goes along with it. This deviant desire to ride a bike runs at odds with the very strict behavioural mandates set aside for Saudi women. Biking, along with other activities such as driving, is strictly forbidden.
Al-Mansour’s portrayal of modern Saudi life is fascinating, and reveals a mix of traditional elements, and Western influences. Wadjda and her mother wear jeans, and t-shirts with English phrases, while cooking and singing Saudi songs. Meanwhile, in the privacy of her bedroom, Wadjda makes herself mix tapes of English music and is seen rocking out to “Tongue Tied” by GroupLove. However, as soon as she sets foot outside the sanctity of her home, society’s rules come into play. Wadjda’s mother must rely upon an abusive driver to get to her job as it is forbidden for women to drive. The girls in Wadjda’s school are told not to laugh in the earshot of men. When construction workers from across the road gain visibility into the school’s courtyard, the girls take cover inside, lest they be seen. Wadjda continues her play and is punished for it. These events are not sensationalized, but are simply blended into everyday life. Rather than making them the focus of the story, and setting up Wadjda as a rallying opponent to these conditions, she simply exists within this bubble. She works insides the confines of her society, wiggling about in an attempt to gain whatever small freedoms she can.
The film is further fleshed out by the well-rounded cast. Mohammed gives an evocative performance and infuses Wadjda with a fiery and independent spirit. Ahd Kamel also stands out as Ms. Hussa, the school’s strict headmistress. Ms. Hussa’s steely demeanor, though harsh, comes from a place of good intentions. She is her students’ moral guardian, and protects them from their own shameful desires. She attempts to draw the line and allow her students to see wrong from right, all while hiding possible transgressions of her own.
A quietly powerful film, Wadjda ends on a bittersweet note, with Wadjda and her mother heading into an uncertain future. Though the road ahead may be difficult, Wadjda’s small victories unveil a ray of hope for her, and all the other Wadjdas of the world.