Here’s a suggested subtitle for Haifaa Al Mansour’s Wadjda: "The Kid Without A Bike". That vehicle – and the sense of freedom and possibility it represents for a child in tricky circumstances – is as central to Al Mansour’s movie as it was to the Dardennes’s - and the heroine of the title has something of the doggedness of a Dardennes character in her pursuit of it. The tale of a spirited middle-class Riyadh girl (Waad Mohammed) who enters a Koran-reciting competition not out of any devout feelings, but rather as a route to getting the bike she covets, Al Mansour’s movie uses an intimate story to construct a wider social picture. Presenting Wadjda at school, at home with her distracted, hard-working mother and on the streets with her friend Abdullah, the film juxtaposes private and public spaces to show the daily segregations and expectations of Saudi society and their gendered underpinnings. (Even Wadjda’s mere desire for a bike is a subversive one – since bike-riding is frowned upon for girls.) In its focus upon a girl pushing against the patriarchal culture she’s stuck in and its use of a will-she-or-won’t-she quest narrative that somehow never feels contrived, Al Mansour’s movie recalls Jeremy Teicher’s great Tall As the Baobab Tree and the quietly observant, unhysterical, sometimes humorous tone of the film evokes Teicher’s as well.
Wadjda’s significance goes beyond its subject matter, though, loaded as it is. For this is not only the first full-length feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia (a country where cinemas have been banned for over thirty years), but also the first to be directed by a woman: Al Mansour reports that, since she’s not allowed to work with men in public, she directed the actors from a van, using a monitor and walkie-talkie to communicate. The story of the movie’s making runs parallel to its plot, in a way: not only is it remarkable that the difficulties of the shoot don’t show up on screen, the fact that the film got made at all is remarkable in itself, and vindicates the finally hopeful, affirmative perspective of the movie.
There’s lots to love about Wadjda: the movie has an open-heartedness, an emotional directness, that’s practically impossible to resist, and that pays dividends in the film’s superb final third. There’s the odd undercooked aspect (Wadjda’s relationship with her father, for one, isn’t explored in enough detail), but clearly it’s the women who Al Mansour wants to focus upon: the movie makes Wadjda’s interactions with her teachers and her mother (a terrific turn by Reem Abdullah) the most telling encounters throughout. Holding the whole together is a great performance from Waad Mohammed who makes Wadjda by turns loveable, irritating, goofy, insensitive and perceptive: in short, a real kid.