Wadjda is an unusual film, an uplifting story about a young Arab girl who rebels against her culture’s strictures on women, presented without sentimentality or preaching. And while it evokes the child stories of Iranian director Jafar Panahi (The White Balloon, Offside), Wadjda is a more straightforward kind of storytelling, the kind of kid-on-a-quest tale that is universal.
The story follows Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), who lives with her mother (Saudi television star Reem Abdullah), a middle-class woman going through a personal crisis because her husband is in the market for a new wife. Rebelling against her gender’s limitations, Wadjda decides she must have a bicycle, even though girls are forbidden to ride. She can race and beat the boys on her street. To get the money, she enters a contest in her religious club at her school.
As it happens, it’s also a cultural milestone: The first film shot entirely within Saudi Arabia, it’s also the first Saudi Arabian film to be submitted for Academy Award consideration, and the first Saudi film by a female director, 39-year-old Haifaa al-Mansour.
But because women still can’t work beside men in public in Saudi Arabia, al-Mansour had to do her job from inside a van, watching on a monitor and communicating with her crew and actors using walkie-talkie. Periodically, police would asked her to change locations because neighbours were uncomfortable with the cameras’ presence.
“All this caused delays, which eventually meant we had to cut the script, which you never want to do. It was very hard work. Five years of it,” al-Mansour says from her home in Bahrain.
After studying at the American University in Cairo, al-Mansour began making short films, followed by a 2005 documentary, Women Without Shadows, about the Arab practice of keeping women covered, which sparked controversy, including death threats against the director.
As well as showing Saudi Arabia as a place where women can’t drive or vote (although they will be allowed to in local elections in 2015), Wadjda also shows a modern country of rapid change, with high-end shopping malls, satellite TV and the Internet. There have even been film festivals in the past decade, in contravention of a ban on cinemas since the early eighties. (The seven-member Saudi Arabian Oscar selection committee saw Wadjda at a film festival in Dubai.)
Though movie theatres are banned in Saudi Arabia, al-Mansour says the country is undergoing positive reforms. Earlier this year, women were even given permission to ride bicycles in recreational areas.
“Things change every time I go there,” al-Mansour says. “The one thing I want to emphasize is that this is a film about hope and moving ahead. It’s about characters who are trying to make the choice to be happy. I think it’s time to be happy in the Middle East.”