Rearview: Saudi 'Wadjda' Packs Strong Social

REARVIEW: Variety critic Peter Debruge explains how 'Wadjda' shrewdly reveals gender issues in Muslim culture.

Remember the name “Wadjda.” It belongs to a 10-year-old Saudi girl who wants nothing more than to own a bicycle, a desire so intense that she decides to compete in a Koran-reciting contest, even though she’s far outmatched by the more devout girls at her school. “Wadjda” also happens to be the title of the young girl’s unforgettable story, as told in the first feature ever shot and released in Saudi Arabia — a country where television thrives, but cinemas barely even exist.

Another first: “Wadjda” was made by a woman, Haifaa Al Mansour, who designed the story to work for both local and international audiences. Al Mansour modeled her simple story on Iranian films, which play like haikus in contrast with Hollywood’s thundering Wagnerian operas. Like the cinematic output of Iran, “Wadjda” was conceived in a culture where Islamic beliefs strictly limit freedoms of speech and expression, effectively blocking any chance of overt criticism. And yet, modest plot aside, Al Mansour’s remarkable debut contains some of the strongest social and political insights audiences will find in any film this year. You just have to know where to look.

Mobility means freedom in Riyadh, the Saudi Arabian capital where the film takes place. A long-standing prohibition forbids women from driving automobiles in the country, placing them at the mercy of hired drivers — a tension that serves as a plot point for Wadjda’s single mother, a relatively liberal woman relaxed enough to sing pop songs at home, but also conservative enough to disapprove of the mix tapes Wadjda makes on her jerry-rigged radio.

The movie shows but never says outright what the rules governing female behavior are. Just as women aren’t allowed to drive, Saudi society clearly frowns on the notion of a young girl riding a bike. And yet in her own uniquely subversive way, Wadjda fixates on this eminently  reasonable goal from the moment she first spies the beautiful green bicycle “floating” past atop a delivery truck.

There’s a certain brilliance in Al Mansour’s decision to focus the script on such a young heroine — a female not old enough to comprehend the rules that limit her gender, wonderfully captured by sparky 12-year-old actress Waad Mohammed. Given her youth, the character is free to slip in and out of situations that grown women couldn’t, including a tricky scene in which she witnesses what appears to be a lesbian connection between two classmates.

Meanwhile, the tomboyish Wadjda (whose purple-laced Chuck Taylors barely pass the school’s dress code) holds her own against the pesky neighborhood boy, Abdullah. Wadjda believes she could easily put him in his place, if only they both had bikes, and Abdullah’s own youthful idealism makes him a fitting accomplice to her dreams. In one of the film’s great scenes, she negotiates rooftop riding lessons in exchange for helping Abdullah with his uncle’s political campaign.

One might say that Wadjda gets away with her behavior because she doesn’t know better. The truth is, she does know better that the society around her.

Al Mansour shrewdly uses the character’s simple, relatable struggle to introduce a sense of fairness and enlightenment that instinctively occurs to any spirit not yet broken by a hyper-controlling culture. Consider the subtext of the final scene, which depicts a victorious Wadjda poised at the end of a road: She has beaten a boy in a simple race, and now she faces a busy highway where she is not allowed to drive. Like that can stop her.

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