Initially the biggest talking point about “Wadjda” will be that a woman, Haifaa Al Mansour, has directed the first Saudi Arabian feature shot entirely within the kingdom. Once the novelty is processed, critics and the public will likely agree that the pic transcends mere surprise value and delivers a winning, handsomely crafted story with a charismatic lead guaranteed to charm international auds. Resembling kid-centered Iranian pics that tackle sticky topics via pint-sized protags, “Wadjda” uses a spunky girl to explore women’s limitations within Arabian society. A vigorous fest life is assured, followed by probable arthouse play.
Screenings in Saudi Arabia are another matter, since the country has no cinemas. Especially interesting will be how the film plays in the neighboring Emirates, a nation with an avid multiplex culture and a slightly more relaxed view of women’s roles in society. Shooting had to be a difficult undertaking, no doubt helped by powerful supporters; Prince Al-Waleed Bin Tal is given prominent thanks in the closing credits, and while Germany’s Razor Film is the main producing entity, backing comes from a range of global movie initiatives including Jordan’s Royal Film Commission, the Abu Dhabi Film Commission, Sundance Institute and the Hubert Bals Fund.
Al Mansour trained abroad and has award-winning shorts and a docu, “Women Without Shadows,” already under her belt, so although producers Roman Paul and Gerhard Meixner may have helped shape the pic along international lines, “Wadjda” feels geared to Arab and global auds. Repetitions of women’s constraints, already well established in the script, are likely meant for foreign viewers, though plenty of lines, including humorous ones, are included for local ears.
Ten-year-old Wadjda (newcomer Waad Mohammed) and her mom (Reem Abdullah) live in a Riyadh suburb, with Wadjda’s affectionate father (Sultan Al Assaf) making only occasional visits from his parents’ house nearby. Mom suspects her in-laws are looking to marry her husband off again since she hasn’t produced a son, but he denies having eyes for anyone else.
Mom talks of little else except pleasing her husband, yet Wadjda is preoccupied with asserting her independence on the playground with best friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani). Most of all, she wants a bike so they can race together, but girls aren’t allowed to ride bikes in Saudi Arabia for fear that they would compromise a woman’s virginity (and encourage freedom of movement in a country where women aren’t allowed to drive).
A new green bike at the local toy store captures Wadjda’s fancy, and she’s determined to raise the $213 needed. Constantly scolded for lax girlish propriety by her headmistress, Hussa (Ahd), Wadjda surprises the school by enrolling in a Koran competition whose prize money will more than cover the bike’s purchase.
Wadjda is constantly told she’s overstepping mandatory modesty; her voice shouldn’t be overheard by men, her head must be covered, she mustn’t listen to pop songs. Yet, delightfully, the girl is anything but contrite. Constantly banging into metaphorical walls erected around her gender, Wadjda’s blithe resolve protects her from bruises: With her irresistible combination of spunk and guile, she’ll achieve her goals.
The adults around her aren’t so lucky, starting with her mother, whose fixation on her husband blinds her to much else (however, the pic foregrounds a loving relationship between mother and daughter). Another side of the coin is Hussa, a hardline hypocrite who compensates for her own frustrations by rigidly imposing Wahabi codes of behavior. With enormous sympathy for all, Al Mansour captures the isolation of Saudi women and their parallel lives of freedom at home and invisibility outside.
A natural onscreen who was 12 at the time of shooting, young thesp Mohammed captivates with a palpable confidence: Her T-shirt proudly proclaims, “I am a Great Catch!,” and she is. Single-monikered Ahd is a believable scold, and while other thesps, including Saudi TV star Abdullah, are less comfortable in emotional roles, they maintain an authentic honesty.
Visuals are clean and satisfying, revealing a confident fluency in compositions and lensing. The majority of the crew is German, but Al Mansour delivers a final product that thankfully doesn’t disguise its Arab origins under a generic internationalism. Although there’s a level of predictability to the finale, it acts as a gift not just to Wadjda, but to her audience.