I’m a sucker for foreign films about plucky children. Not only do these films tell heartwarming stories, but they also take viewers to intriguing and beautiful countries. The new movie “Wadjda” tells a heartwarming story about a spunky young girl, while also depicting the daily rhythms and customs of a distant land. It is one of the few films to emerge from Saudi Arabia, and the first feature film directed by a Saudi Arabian women; production reportedly took five years, because director Haifaa Al-Mansour did most of her work from vans, using walkie-talkies, because men and women are forbidden to be seen working together.
Just for opening a window into a restrictive culture, “Wadjda” is worth seeing. But it’s also a great little story, about an 11-year-old girl, Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), who wants a bicycle. But at almost every step, she’s discouraged: Her mother tells her that bicycles are not for girls, asking “Have you ever seen a girl on a bicycle?”, and her stern headmistress is constantly trying to get her to conform to Saudi Arabia’s rigid gender norms. After all, this is a country where women are not even allowed to drive cars. The only person who seems intent on helping Wadjda achieve her dream is the neighbor boy, Abdullah (Abdullrahman Algohani), who lets her ride his bike when nobody’s around.
Wadjda’s quest to acquire a bicycle is only part of the story. We learn about her struggles in school, where she is constantly running afoul of the headmistress, who tells her to stop listening to Western rock music and wearing Converse sneakers. We learn that her father is considering taking a second wife, as Wadjda’s mother is unable to bear any more children and he desires a son. One of the saddest scenes occurs when Wadjda comes across an illustration of his family tree; because she is a girl, her name is not on it. So she pins her name to the tree, only to find it crumpled up on the floor the next day. What makes this all the more heartbreaking is that Wadjda’s father seems to love both her and her mom. But his failure to question his country’s values leads to discord and heartbreak.
We worry about Wadjda, and wonder whether such a spunky, unconventional girl can survive in traditional Saudi Arabian society. We see that the headmistress is quite mean — viewers waiting for her to become more easy-going, or to reveal a more pleasant, less dogmatic side, will be disappointed. When Wadjda joins the school’s religion club and begins memorizing the Koran, the headmistress takes her under the wing. But when the headmistress SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS! learns that Wadjda joined the club so that she could enter a competition and use the prize money to get a bike, she becomes angry. “You haven’t changed at all,” she says. At this moment, Wadjda seems destined for a future of dashed dreams, arbitrary restrictions and cruel punishments. She wins the money, but she can’t have it: Instead, it will be donated to the Palestinian cause.
In retrospect, “Wadjda’s” messaging seems a bit heavy-handed. But it works, because Haifaa Al-Mansour directs with such a light touch, and because her child actors, particularly Waad Mohammed and Abdullrahman Algohani, are superb. You can’t help but root for these kids. And it’s probably worth noting that “Wadjda’s” existence is remarkable in and of itself: How, I kept wondering, did Al-Mansour get permission to make this film, much let distribute it in America? Even if “Wadjda” was a mediocre movie, it would probably still be watching, just for depicting life in such a secretive and repressive country.
But “Wadjda” isn’t a mediocre movie — it’s a pretty good one. And it ends on a surprisingly hopeful note. It is Wadjda’s mother who buys her the bicycle. And when Wadjda takes it for a ride, she is joined by Abdullah, who has already told her that he wants to marry her someday; unlike other boys, he doesn’t seem put off by her fearless nature, shrewd nature and strong will. The closing scene, where the children ride off toward the horizon on their bikes, is quietly radical, suggesting that a better future for Saudi Arabia is possible.
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