A rare insight into lives squeezed between a slit of the Niqāb (face-veil), Wadjda brilliantly evokes the Islamic society in Saudi Arabia where women eat food left over by men, where pre-teen girls are married to males twice, or more, their age, and ‘proper’ girls are neither seen nor heard, for a woman’s voice reveals her “nakedness”.
Taking us there is feisty and rebellious Wadjda (extraordinary Waad Mohammed), a 10-year-old girl who has chosen Converse high-tops over girly Mary-Jane shoes to walk to and from her middle-class Riyadh home and the madrassa.
She has loving parents although her mother is heavy with anxiety that Wadjda’s father is seeking out a second wife to bear him a son. Meanwhile, the highly-spirited only child has resolved to own a bicycle so that she could race with Abdullah, the boy she hangs out with in the neighbourhood.
Unable to persuade her mother, influenced by the belief that girls could lose their virginity riding a bike, to give her the money, the determined young lady signs up for a Quran recital competition in which the cash prize in riyal would allow her to make the purchase.
Held together with sharply-drawn vignettes that cohere, this feature — the first to be filmed entirely in Saudi Arabia by her first female director, Haifaa al-Mansour — could well prove to be a seminal work in a country where cinemas themselves have been banned for three decades.
Using white light that jumps off the dust in the dry and sun-swept capital, Lutz Reitemeier captures the bleak subjugation women in the kingdom endure — a fact the Saudi King’s daughters have only recently attested to.
Collaborating seamlessly, the filmmakers juxtapose the behaviour of Saudi women today with incipient attitudes of the next generation.
When the headmistress of the madrassa expels a student over a romantic tryst, while rumoured to be similarly indulgent herself, Wadjda is unafraid to tell the entire school of her plans to buy the frowned-upon bicycle with her winning prize. When her mother goes to unfathomable lengths not to be compromised in the eyes of Islam to preserve her husband’s honour, only to be betrayed, Wadjda is using her feminine charm on Abdullah to learn how to ride without training wheels.
With the wind in her hair, and miles ahead of Abdullah on the new bike — a metaphor (within metaphors) emphasised by the little boy’s labouring look — Wadjda is pushing boundaries past disapproving looks breaking through seeming grimness into the freedom and independence that all women are entitled to.