Cast: Waad Mohammed, Reem Abdullah, Abdullrahman Al Gohani
Director: Haifaa al-Mansour
Year of Release: 2012
GIRLS JUST WANNA HAVE FUN
Set in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, Wadjda lends itself easily to the lens of feminism. The story of an 11-year-old girl who desperately wants to buy a bicycle, the film confines itself to spaces that are palpably cloistered. In Wadjda’s school, girls are not allowed to laugh or play for long in the yard because men might either be listening or watching. “If you can see them, they can see you,” the students are told. Warned not to hold hands and told not to sin, their assemblies resemble sermons. At home, Wadjda’s mother lives in constant fear of losing her husband to a possible second wife because she cannot bear him a son. It would be easy to view Wadjda as a tale of women’s rights, a narrative of female triumph, but pigeonholing it in this manner would be doing its emancipation a disservice. The film is never preachy. It is suffused with too much warmth for a prism that restrictive.
To describe Wadjda, there could be no better adjective than ‘spunky’. In the film’s very first scene, we see her stand out. Her fellow students all wear polished black shoes. She wears blue sneakers. She listens to American rock music and when she’s told that a green cycle she covets exceeds her budget by a fair few riyals, she doubles up her production of thread bracelets. She sells these at a premium and becomes a go-between for girls and their lovers. Her non-conformism isn’t born out of innate desire to be rebellious. Wadjda simply believes that her place in the world matters enough for her desires to be legitimate. So, on a family tree that has only the names of men, she pins her own.
The first feature length film to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and the first film to be made by a Saudi female director, the story of Wadjda’s production is perhaps as intriguing as this film itself. When shooting on the film’s streets, Haifaa al-Mansour had to direct her film from the back of van because she couldn’t be seen working with the men of her crew. Similar adversities present themselves before the film’s characters. Wadjda, for instance, is told repeatedly that girls don’t ride bikes, that she won’t have children if she does, but the innocence with which she remains steadfast in her determination is both charming and inspirational. Played effortlessly by Waad Mohammed, Wadjda becomes a hero you want to cheer right till the very end. Her mother (Reem Abdullah), who works through the day and smokes cigarettes on a terrace at night, similarly resists pity and shame.
Wadjda signs up for a Koran competition that requires her to memorise and recite verses from the Holy Book. She isn’t driven by piousness. It’s the cash prize of 1,000 riyals that attracts her. She has just one goal – she wants to outrace her friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani). Their relationship is affectingly sweet, but never crosses over to being too cute. He lets her practice on his bicycle and buys her a helmet. She chases him down when he cycles off with her sandwich. Wadjda is certainly reminiscent of Majid Majidi’s Children of Heaven (1997) and the films of Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, but the one film it predictably makes you want to watch again is Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. Wadjda too seems influenced by neo-realist tropes, but at its heart, it’s also a tender film that is again driven by a desire for that prized object, a bicycle.