You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Why ‘Wadjda’ Matters: Tiny Saudi Movie Makes Waves

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.

Popular on Variety

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.

More Film

  • Li Shaohong

    Li Shaohong Revisits Macao and Chinese War Films

    Fifth generation director Li Shaohong’s career has spanned the entire length of the Chinese film market’s rise, from its days as a state-run industry churning out nothing but social realist films to its current stage of supporting ever more sophisticated and lucrative blockbusters and genre films. The current head of the China Film Directors’ Guild, [...]

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    Johnny Ma on the Dynamics of New Era Film Production in China

    Shanghai-born Canadian filmmaker Johnny Ma says he’d planned to make three films in China before moving on to other things, but the current state of the Chinese industry has “forced his hand” and convinced him to move on early after two. Currently living in Mexico, his next project is actually in TV: a pilot for [...]

  • 'Wonder Woman 1984' Trailer: Gal Gadot

    'Wonder Woman 1984' Trailer: Gal Gadot Returns With Pedro Pascal, Kristen Wiig

    “Wonder Woman 1984” dropped its first trailer on Sunday, with Gal Gadot returning as the titular Amazonian goddess. The film is set, of course, in the 1980s in America, decades after the first film’s events. Kristen Wiig is playing Wonder Woman’s infamous comic-book nemesis Cheetah, while Chris Pine is returning for the sequel. It’s unclear, [...]

  • Over the Sea

    Macao Film Review: 'Over the Sea'

    The beginning is a fairy tale, or a nursery rhyme. A woman nurses her squalling baby in a house by an orchard near the sea. Sunlight slants in through the open windows, the mother hums a lullaby, and then brings her son outside and places him in a cot suspended from the apple-laden branches of [...]

  • CCA Film Nominations

    Critics' Choice: 'The Irishman,' 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' Lead Movie Nominations

    “The Irishman” has picked up the most film nominations for the 35th annual Critics’ Choice Awards. The Martin Scorsese gangster drama goes into the awards show with 14 noms, including best picture, director, acting ensemble as well as best actor (Robert De Niro) and supporting actor (Al Pacino and Joe Pesci), the Critics’ Choice Association [...]

  • Parasite

    'Parasite' Named Best Film of 2019 by L.A. Film Critics Association

    Hollywood’s hometown critics clearly aren’t afraid of subtitles. Members of the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. met Sunday to vote on the year’s best cinema accomplishments. South Korean thriller “Parasite” fared the best, taking not only best picture, but also the group’s director prize for Bong Joon Ho and supporting actor for Song Kang Ho. [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content