Review by-Jarrett Leahy
Wadjda is an 11-year-old girl living in Riyadh, the capital city of Saudi Arabia. Free spirited and a bit of an odd duckling, it is Wadjda’s dream to buy her very own bicycle so that she can race and beat her friend Abdullah. However, in the Saudi culture, it is believed that girls should not ride bikes because they are seen as a threat to a girl’s virtue. Never one to be deterred and ever the resourceful young girl, Wadjda has been saving every Riyal she can get her hands on, but still finds herself hundreds short of the amount needed for her beloved bicycle. One day, Wadjda decides to sign up for the schoolwide Koran recitation contest, hoping the prize money for first place will be enough get her the bike she so dearly covets.
Wadjda is everything you could ask for in a piece of world cinema. One of the signs of a truly gifted foreign film is if it helps the viewer better understand a culture different from their own. Here Wadjda succeeds gloriously, taking us out of our comfort zone and showing how other people live halfway across the world. We are told that Saudi women are not to be seen or heard in public by men. Because Wadjda’s mother can’t produce a male heir, we see that under Saudi law, her father has the right to find another wife if he so desires. And we feel and sympathize for Wadjda, who is beginning to grasp some of the harsh realities she must face in the society she lives in.
Waad Mohammed, the young actress who plays Wadjda is simply a revelation on screen. She confidently personifies the fearless optimism of a young girl who refuses to let life bring her down. From the opening scene, she grabs your heart and doesn’t let go. Striking Saudi actress Reem Abdullah offers a poignantly moving performance as Wadjda’s mother. Always under the constant pressure of society rules, we see and feel her inner strife through her silent yet emotive facial expressions as she toils to provide for Wadjda while trying to persuade her husband not to choose another wife. The loving interactions between mother and daughter are genuine and heartfelt, and their final scenes will leave you with a lump in your throat.
What makes this gifted film even more special is that Wadjda is the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia. Even more, it is the first feature-length film made by a female Saudi director, Haifaa Al-Mansour. It was reported that because of the constraints placed on women in Saudi Arabia, Al-Mansour was not permitted to interact directly with the men on her film crew. During street scenes, she was forced to watch on a monitor in a vehicle close by and then give directions by using a walkie-talkie.
A marvel that it was even made, Wadjda is superb storytelling. It transports the viewers into a foreign land and grants them the opportunity to experience life in a society very different from their own. Skillfully accepting the heavy burden of carrying a film at such a young age, Waad Mohammed shines as the title character. If by the end, this adorable little girl doesn’t win you over, you may want to check your pulse.-JL