For a film that's as simple and sweet as a child's kiss, "Wadjda" is revolutionary.
It's believed to be the first movie shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and the first film made in the country by a woman. That's quite a feat in a nation where movie theaters are banned and sexual segregation is the norm. That "Wadjda" has survived such obstacles to become a film-festival favorite and the country's first submission for Oscar consideration is a testament to director Haifaa Al-Mansour's determination.
But all of that wouldn't mean as much if "Wadjda" (pronounced Waj-da) weren't very good. The film is deserving of its position as a pioneer. It's a heartfelt, touching peek into the day-to-day life of a culture Westerners rarely get to see.
Wadjda (a captivating Waad Mohammed) is a young girl living in Riyadh, who already feels smothered by her country's religious traditionalism. Much to the consternation of her teacher, she wears sneakers under her robe and, much to her mom's dismay, she blares Western pop music like "Tongue Tied" by Grouplove on her radio.
Worst of all, more than anything, she wants to buy a bike so she can beat a neighborhood boy, Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), in a race. Such a goal is not allowed for girls, though the government recently liberalized these prohibitions. All of this makes her even more determined, to the point of entering a contest measuring one's knowledge of the Koran just for the cash prize.
Wadjda's plotting to get her bike is set against the backdrop of the quiet desperation of her home life, where her mother (Reem Abdullah) agonizes over whether Wadjda's father (Sultan Al Assaf), who really wants a son, is dissatisfied enough to take a second wife. Meanwhile, at school, strict principal Ms. Hussa (Ahd) is determined to set Wadjda on a less secular path.
Yet there's a good-natured sensibility about Al-Mansour's style that doesn't paint Saudi men as ogres, and it offers hope for the future in Abdullah, who wants Wadjda to get her bike nearly as much as she does.
If "Wadjda" is any guide, it all bodes well not only for the future of a nascent Saudi Arabian film industry but for women navigating their way through Saudi society.
4 stars (out of 5)
Director: Haifaa Al-Mansour
Cast: Waad Mohammed, Reem Abdullah, Abdullrahman Al Gohani
Rated: PG (thematic elements, brief mild language, smoking)
Running time: 98 minutes
In Arabic with English subtitles
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