Saudi's first feature film is groundbreaking on many levels, featuring the kingdom's first female director, Haifaa Al Mansour, and a female lead. It’s also the first film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia.
"Wadjda" tells the story of a determined young girl who competes in a Quran recitation contest.
She enters in order to win enough money to purchase a green bike so she can beat her friend Abdullah in a race; despite the fact that unchaperoned women aren't allowed to ride bikes in public.
Though Saudi Arabia’s fundamentalist Wahabbi leadership cites religion as the reason for its restrictive laws, Wadjda uses religion as a means of buying herself a bit more freedom by memorizing verses from the Quran for the competition at her all-girls school in Riyadh.
The director Al Mansour sought to "create a story where people can laugh and cry a little," rather than forcing her film to carry a heavy-handed social and political message. However the film still contains many poignant moments that are a window into the little-seen world of Saudi women.
The film's trailer shows the way in which Wadjda's dreams draw her into conflict with her family and community, as her mother scolds her for coming home without a headscarf and jokingly threatens to marry her off. The mother faces her own problems as Wadjda's father insults her for not giving him a son, but at the end of the trailer she holds Wadjda tight and tells her, "If you set your mind to something, no one can stop you."
"Wadjda" trailer by SodaPictures
Wadjda is an entrepreneurial young girl whose determination reflects the modernity and resilience of many Saudi women, including the boundary-pushing Al Mansour. She wears blue toenail polish underneath her Converses and risks expulsion for pursuing her goals when she comes into conflict with the headmistress of her school. In an interview with the Financial Times, Al Mansour commented, “It was very important for me to show that even women reinforce traditional values and that it is not only men. The usual refrain is that the men are always the oppressors and the women are always victims, but the situation is more complex than that.”
Director Al Mansour insisted on shooting the film entirely in Saudi Arabia so that it would be entirely authentic, despite the legal and logistical problems it entailed. As women and men are prevented from publicly interacting, she said, “It was a major obstacle to go out in the street and talk to my actors,” and she would often direct by telephone and with walkie-talkies.
Al Mansour triumphs in giving human faces and voices to the burkha-covered ladies showing the joys experienced by those living in Saudi Arabia as well as the inequalities. It’s an intimate window into a world that few get access to, and Al Mansour noted in an interview with Al Jazeera. that, "It's difficult for a male filmmaker to break into this secluded world and have the same opportunities I had."
Despite the legal and cultural gender inequality, empowered Saudi women are still making a difference. Al Mansour is optimistic for what’s to come, saying, “Saudi Arabia is opening up. I’m not saying it’s heaven, but we saw Saudi sending women to the Olympics. There is an opportunity now for women to pursue their dreams.”
"Wajda" will be released in the UK on July 19, 2013, and will be available later this year in the US.
Clarification: An earlier version of this article said that Wadjda's mother was actually her stepmother, but a new cast list from IMDB simply lists her as "mother."