The total lack of films that come out of Saudi Arabia make Wadjda, a Saudi film by Haiffa Al-Mansour, instantly alluring. Haiffa Al-Mansour is already accredited as being the first successful woman filmmaker in Saudi Arabia’s history.
This is very much Al- Mansour’s film. She charms the viewer with the common everyday struggles of the Saudi woman, and rather than address the issues in a combative way, her approach is warm, even cute. This draws us into her characters and provides us with some heartfelt laughs along the way.
The precocious 10-year Wadjda is growing up in Riyadh where she wants nothing more than a shiny new bicycle. Not only is she a little short on riyals, but in Saudi Arabia women are not permitted to ride bicycles. Saudi moral code bans woman from driving, going out in public unveiled, living unaccompanied, leaving the country alone, and opposing their husbands’ orders in any way.
Small details make grand impressions: In an all-girls-school, teenage students paint their toenails, which is considered a sin. They are publicly vilified for it. The mere possibility that workmen half a mile away might see school girls playing in their courtyard forces all the girls to rush inside, lest they be judged impure. Pubescent girls are considered tainted and must use a tissue just flip the pages of Koran.
Wadjad’s truly beautiful mother spends much of her time perfecting her appearance only then to have to then cover herself with a full hijab. She is never openly defiant; defiance is impossible, but even though she is obeying age-old traditions that we’d assume would have dulled any emotional protest, through the mother’s submission we get a brief glimpse of her distress, the natural human emotional distress that no amount of “aged tradition” or religious subjugation has the right to inflict on any human being.
In a country where cinemas are banned, Riyadh is not exactly a city where women can just go around shooting films. Females mixing with male co-workers would bring dire consequences. Al-Mansour shot the film anyway, directing much of it from the back of a van, and the result is a film representing the triumph of the defiant feminine spirit, in all forms.