Saudi Arabia does not have any cinemas, and its first full length fiction film, Keif al Hal, was made as late as 2006. It was not shot in the Kingdom however, but in Dubai. The same year Shadow of Silence (Dhilal al sammt) was also made, and in 2007 came the horror film Al Qaryah Al Manseyyah. Wadjda, which premièred at the Venice Film Festival last year and has just began its world tour, is an even more remarkable milestone. Not only is it the first Saudi film which is made entirely on Saudi soil (in a suburb of Riyadh) but it is also written and directed by a woman, Haifaa al Mansour.
Wadjda is the name of the main character, a 10-year-old girl who goes to school, plays with the boy next door and dreams about a green bicycle. All of these things cause problems. She is not happy at the strict, conservative school, she upsets her mother by being home alone with the boy and everybody says that girls should not ride bicycles. The owner of the bicycle store and her friend are the only ones who are supportive. The film is also about her mother, whose husband is considering leaving her. After she gave birth to Wadjda she became infertile (or in some way reproductively challenged) so she cannot give birth to a son, which the husband wants.
Besides these major plot lines, the film shows in all sorts of ways, big and small, how the lives of women are restricted and controlled, and how they can neither move nor speak freely. Saudi Arabia is after all one of the most repressive countries in the world, for both men and women, with the women having a particularly hard time. A movement have just begun that is challenging the laws banning women from driving cars, and although Wadjda is too young to be wanting a car it is probable that she will be rebelling against that too, when she gets older.
Stylistically the film is rather mundane, low-key and natural. The acting feels somewhat restrained, inhibited. I do not know if this is because of difference in acting style or directorial intentions but the adults did not feel really at ease, with the exception of Reem Abdullah who plays the mother. Waad Mohammed, who plays Wadjda, and Abdullrahman Al Gohani who plays her friend Abdullah, are excellent, and really moving. Wadjda is an inspiring girl, very active and cunning almost Machiavellian in the way she deals with people in order to get what she wants. She uses smiles, flattery, bribes and deception to get ahead, and with a lot of pluck, but usually without malice. She just is very good at playing people, and she needs these skills. She is also fortunate in having loving and well-off parents, even though the father is absent almost all the time. One of the ways in which Wadjda is trying to earn some money is by making and selling thread bracelets. In one scene she and her mother has gone to a posh mall. She walks up to a man selling such bracelets and wonders if he would sell hers. The man says that he gets his from China, that this is cheaper than if he were to get them locally made, a telling image of this brave new world.
Wadjda is al Mansour's first full length film, previously she has made a number of short films nad it is a co-production between the local company Rotana Studios (who also produced Keif Al Hal), German companies and money from Abu Dhabi. It was not easy to make the film for al Mansour, and being a woman she had to direct the scenes taking place outdoors from a car, and talking to the men in the team through a walkie-talkie. But it got made, and it is a beautiful film, sweet as well as angry.
Here is a clip: