Wadjda is deeply influenced by cinematic history. Writer/director Haifaa al-Mansour has stated a significant influence on her film was neorealist cinema, and it’s not hard to see the influence of a film like Bicycle Thieves in this story of a young Saudi girl’s quest to purchase a bicycle, or the way al-Mansour’s camera creates a compelling portrait of conservative Saudi Arabia in the same way that de Sica’s film captured poverty-stricken Italy. The film follows the eponymous twelve-year-old’s attempt to earn enough money to afford that bicycle by entering a Qur’an recitation competition, and it’s not hard to see the parallels between her teachers’ scepticism with the reaction to Antoine’s essay in The 400 Blows, a film explicitly quoted in Wadjda’s final shot.
Despite its connection with cinema’s respectable pedigree, al-Mansour’s film is a transgressive, transformative document, a quietly furious feminist film. It’s the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia’s first submission for the Foreign Language Oscar (where it, sadly, did not make the shortlist) and the first film by a female Saudi director. al-Mansour’s road to completing the film was a difficult and remarkable one; unable to interact with men in public, she was forced to direct many scenes via radio from a closed van.
No doubt rooted in al-Mansour’s personal experience, Wadjda provides insight into the injustice and inequality that define modern Saudi Arabia, and the ways that women like Wadjda and her mother fight for small victories in this society. The film is predominantly populated by women, with men relegated to margins of the narrative. But their influence is powerfully felt; both Wadjda’s apartment and all-girls school are adjacent to construction work, where faceless men loom above (the students are forced to hide when builders are spotted above, lest they be seen without their veil) or their scaffolding lurks like a skeletal prison.
Women are prisoners here. One student at Wadjda’s school recruits her to sneak a card out to a boyfriend, giving her permission to leave the school to visit “her brother” (Wadjda requests payment for the favour; she’s nothing if not a hustler). Another girl, only twelve, passes around photos of her recent marriage – to a twenty-year-old. Wadjda’s mother’s (Reem Abdullah) imprisonment is internalized, patriarchy deeply ingrained in her self-esteem. She’s deeply anxious about the possibility of her husband taking a second wife, and reluctant to break out of the bounds around her; when her friend suggests the possibility of applying for a job at the hospital, she rejects the idea out of a sense of propriety even she doesn’t seem to fully understand.
Wadjda is different. Played by young Waad Mohammed with uninhibited mischievousness, her purple-laced Converses and eclectic mixtapes mark her as the sort of girl who’d be smoking cigarettes and/or kissing boys behind the bike shed in a more progressive country. Instead her focus is on the bicycle itself, an obvious, if effective, symbol of freedom. And of feminism, and rebellion. It’s a modest kind of rebellion, though, but it’s easy to sympathise with Wadjda’s intense desire to race with the boys, to feel the wind in her hair. To feel, for once, unencumbered by the noose that hangs around her, ever tightening.
Wadjda is occasionally marred by jarring edits or clumsy camerawork; understandable given the trying circumstances of filming. This does not distract from a simple, poignant film, a film that is captivating as a portrait of the female experience in Saudi Arabia while simultaneously commenting on the inequality that pervades our own society. This is a film that deserves to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Bicycle Thieves and The 400 Blows, even if the Academy does not agree.