Last Wednesday I went along to the Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square to see Wadjda. Wadjda had been showing at the Prince Charles for about two months and this was my last chance to catch an evening viewing as it had reached the end of its run.
I was intrigued because this was billed as the one of the first ever feature films shot entirely in Saudi Arabia – it is set in Riyadh – and by a female Saudi director, Haifaa al-Mansour, to boot.
The movie is centred around a ten-year old girl, Wadjda, who wants to buy a new green bicycle so that she can race with a local boy, Abdullah. Simple enough you might think, but this is Saudi Arabia, home to an incredible array of restrictive customs and practices.
Wadjda, played winningly by Waad Muhammad, in one memorable early scene goes to the shop owner and informs him that he should not sell the bike to anyone else while she saves up the money for it. A Qur’an recitation competition at her school with prize money for the winner provides Wadjda with a possible opportunity to purchase the bike of her dreams.
It is an uncomplicated plot. Haifaa al-Mansour, however, uses it to help lift the veil for the viewer so that we can observe the depressing number of ways in which the potential of Saudi Arabia’s women is being systematically crushed. Even women often conspire to repress other women. Due to Saudi Arabia’s infamous laws prohibiting women to drive cars, Wadjda’s mother, like all Saudi women, is forced to rely on a taxi driver to take her on her long journey to work. It is a ridiculous restriction and you would think that she would be the first to understand Wadjda’s innocent desire and yet she refuses to buy the bicycle because riding bikes is not what respectable girls in Saudi Arabia do.
Wadjda and her school-friends are told to stop playing in the school yard and are told to go inside because some workmen on rooftops across the road might catch a glimpse of them. Wadjda is scolded by her headmistress for talking to loudly. “A woman’s voice reveals her nakedness,” she is told. In another scene, we see Wadjda’s school-friends giggling in class because one of them, Salma, who cannot be more than eleven, has brought in pictures of her new husband.
Meanwhile, Wadjda’s mother is feeling increasingly insecure as she hears rumours around town that her husband’s mother is looking for a second wife for him as she has not borne him a son to date.
There are eye-opening details scattered throughout this film which really help underline the power of world cinema.
In interviews following the release of her film, Haifaa al-Mansour revealed that when filming in the more conservative areas of Saudi Arabia, she was forbidden from mixing with the men in her crew and had to direct them via walkie-talkie from the back of a van.
It all adds up to a very considerable achievement indeed. Reading my review above it all sounds a bit dour, but the film is certainly not. Wadjda is often very funny and not at all over-bearing or preachy. If it helps push out the boundaries so that Saudi Arabia becomes a little less totalitarian then that can only be a good thing.