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"Wadjda," first film by Saudi female director

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"Wadjda," first film by Saudi female director with French sensitivities, selected to open the Ayam Beirut Al Cinema'iya film festival this year

With compassion, insight and humor, Haifaa Al-Mansour, the director shines the spotlight on Wadjda, a 10 year old girl - cut from a different cloth right from the start. In the first few frames of the film, we see Wadjda wiggling her feet in sneakers - in stark contrast to her classmates who wear their conformist ballet flats. The film is focused on Wadjda's simple yet vaulting desire to own a bike. In most cultures this would not raise an eyebrow but in Saudi Arabia, it is controversial.... Why, it might even cause a woman to lose her virginity!

The cinematically beautiful film has a light touch but is an eye opener. It shines a spotlight on the clash of cultures, values and mores in Saudi Arabia's strict Wahhabi society. The restrictions impact women broadly - from marriage and career to the freedom to drive. Al-Mansour, an artist, and change agent is a compassionate centrist who embraces the moderate middle.

In an interview Haifaa Al-Mansour says, "I focus on the personal and not the political." So she does in a compassionate story which highlights tough issues - but be assured Al-Mansour is anything but shrill. She delivers vital, game changing messages brilliantly but -- sotto voce.

The story line focuses on Wadjda's passion to pursue her simple dream to own a bike - at any cost - so that she can race her young friend, Ali and win. Interspersed into the story are insights into the deeper divide in Saudi society - its gender segregation, curtailment of women's rights to drive cars (even though, Aisha, Prophet Muhammad's last and youngest wife rode into battle bare back on a camel in seventh century Arabia).

One of the most poignant moments of the film for me focused on a man's prerogative to marry a second wife if the first wife did not bear him a male heir - even though the husband loves his first wife and their daughter. The irony is that the arranged marriage with the second wife takes place in an adjoining compound to the first wife's home. Both mother and daughter observe the festivities from their terrace and sadly hug each other, recognizing that the two of them must now hang together and face their battles bravely. This is an intense scene where mother and daughter are meted out their fate - over which they have no control.

I was struck by the director's light touch in handling tough societal issues. When asked about the tone of her film, Haifaa Al-Mansour said: "I want to be heard. If I have a point of view, it is important not to scream it out but to present it so people can listen. It is important to take people on a journey with you and not compromise your message. You can be effective even by being in the moderate middle."

Al-Mansour dealt with her challenges of which there were many. She was, after all, the first Saudi women director, who had to finance a film that was going against Saudi culture and film it from a van where her crew was segregated by gender.

Grounded in motherhood and upbeat about life, she believes it is important not to be judgmental but to focus on the "inner struggle." She recognizes that Saudi society is evolving- "there is room now to speak up - but it is important not to complain."

Wadjda is the Saudi entry for the Oscar next year. We wish Al-Mansour all success - and I wish I had more movies like this to review!

Khadijah's daughters is a blog by Shahnaz Chinoy Taplin, board president of Invest in Muslim Women, a non-profit project of the Global Fund for Women. Invest in Muslim Women focuses on the economic empowerment of Muslim women, justice and peace. The blog is inspired by Khadijah, Prophet Muhammad's first wife and the quintessential role model for Muslim women. She was the first convert to Islam, the first Muslim woman entrepreneur, a globalist and a feminist.