As many Iranian directors have done in the past, Saudi filmmaker Haifaa al-Mansour weaves a tale that possesses political bite, but makes its points through the eyes of children. “Wadjda” is on the surface a lightweight tale of a twelve-year old tomboy who challenges what’s expected of young girls by wanting a bike. But the film is no more about a bicycle than “The Bicycle Thief” was. It’s an indictment of the treatment of women in fundamentalist Islamic society, told from the perspective of a youngster who challenges the system in a modest way that brings a small but real triumph.
Waad Mohammed, a bright-eyed girl with a winning smile, plays Wadjda, who loves her mother (Reem Abdullah) and father (Sultan Al Assaf), but trouble is brewing in the household. She’s an only child, and since her father badly wants a son, he’s inclining to his mother’s wishes that he marry again. (Wadjda herself is crushed when the note she adds to her father’s family tree, which lists only males, is removed.) Meanwhile her mother, a teacher, is constantly upbraided for her tardiness by the driver she must have because women don’t operate cars. And at school, Wadjda—who’s somewhat rebellious, as is demonstrated in an early scene that focuses on the beat-up sneakers she favors over the polished black shoes of her classmates—gets stern looks from the principal (Ahd), who insists on absolute female propriety, in accordance with Islamic tradition, among her students.
Wadjda does get some solace from her friendship with the neighbor’s son (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), a tyke who’s obviously in awe of her attitude and—after she announces her determination to buy a bicycle to beat him in a race—even agrees to help her learn to ride his (after getting her agreement to string some election-campaign lights on behalf of his uncle from her house, despite her mother’s misgivings). Meanwhile, she puts down a deposit on the bike she’s enamored of with the proprietor of the neighborhood toy shop.
But where will she get the rest of the price tag? The solution comes with the announcement of a school contest pitting students against one another in answering questions about, and reciting portions of, the Koran. Though heretofore an indifferent student, Wadjda sets her mind to winning the prize, joining the religion club and plunking down cash for a video game centered on knowledge of the Holy Book. The principal is properly impressed with her apparent change of heart, even as she’s punishing other students for their behavioral lapses (which, we’re told, might well persuade their families simply to marry them off as punishment). But, of course, she isn’t aware of the motive behind Wadjda’s new-found devotion.
Mansour’s film certainly isn’t shy about driving home its point about the subservient status of women in Saudi Arabia. In addition to the myriad plot threads on the subject already noted, there’s another, concerning the consideration Wadjda’s mother gives to taking a new job in a hospital, where a more liberal attitude toward wearing the burkha prevails, that further reinforces it. But the writer-director’s touch in dealing with these matters is generally fairly light, always returning to Mohammad’s beaming face as she savors the possibilities that lie before her or the earnest concentration with which she regards the disappointments she has to confront.
“Wadjda,” moreover, is smart enough to say what the girl comes to realize: that while she may enjoy an occasional small triumph, she remains part of a culture in which she’ll still be constrained by custom and law. As moviemaking goes, that’s a cunning strategy on Mansour’s part, allowing for a juxtaposition of climaxes that mix messages of hope and the obstacles to it in a satisfying way. The result isn’t a Pollyanna movie, but neither is it a downbeat one. By including both small steps forward and setbacks, it manages to be both uplifting and realistic, charming and incisive.
“Wadjda” proves a winner in a great many ways.