On the surface, there’s not much to say about director Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Saudi Arabian drama, Wadjda (2012). Wadjda, an adolescent on the outskirts of popularity at her primary school, wants a bicycle so that she can race a neighborhood boy. The conflict lies not only in her efforts to get the bike, but also in the disapproving gazes of the adults in her life.
Wadja’s spunky in her Sharpied converse sneakers and her butterfly clips. She weaves bracelets to the tune of radio-broadcasted pop songs and isn’t quick to upgrade to the Abaya that covers her whole face. Yet… she’s not trying to be rebellious; she’s just trying to BE.
The adults in her life may scold her for never walking in the shadows or for singing too loudly when the men are near, but they’re just as often fascinated by her. She parades her school and the streets of Riyadh in a way that strikes fear in the hearts of her peers and her mentors, but they all want her to succeed. Everyone around her seems to give in to her charm. Something about the way she carries herself persuades the toy shopkeeper to set aside a shiny green bike for Wadjda so that she can save up for it. Her mother never speaks up about the new strings of lights hanging over their place or her new interest in the Koran for her school’s memorization event.
This is because no one pities Wadjda — which means the audience doesn’t, either. We want her to succeed because she never feels the burning stares of the neighborhood on her back as she walks. She is unfazed by everyone’s laughter at the thought of her on a bike. So much so that she never even defends herself.
Wadjda is refreshing because it takes a passive stand against societal standards for women in Saudi Arabia. Director Al-Mansour had to direct from her vehicle to abide by local rule and yet her stance was not one of anger. The plot was thick with some sadness, anger, and even a little disgust but Wadjda was just a sounding board for it all. She never seemed to internalize people’s words — something even other women in the film seem to admire about her.
The women in Wadjda’s life seem to damper her dreams of bicycle-riding not because they don’t want to make the ten-year-old happy but because they are afraid of her chances of thriving in their world if she doesn’t abide. Her mother, in a one-sided relationship with her father, wants Wadjda to find love and maintain her femininity and innocence so that she can remain desirable to men. Men seem to be the object of all women’s desire in this film, reflecting some major themes in Saudi Arabian culture. They even keep each other in line when men are around or could possibly be near.
Despite all of this, Wadjda holds her head and her hopes high. All of the women in this film are faced with the same challenges that she is but she insists on tackling them a different way.
Filmed entirely in Saudi Arabia — a rarity still in 2021 — Wadja’s critics are raving about the accuracy of this film’s portrayal of what it means to be a woman in the Middle East, or just what it means to be a woman.
This film ticked all of the boxes for diversity, was directed by the first known female director from Saudi Arabia, and didn’t demonize any group of people, as is the norm for films trying to tug at your heartstrings. It’s an easy 5/5 stars for me.