Her heart’s desire is to own and ride a bike…

directed by Haifaa Al Mansour

97mins, rated PG, opens 20 March

review by Michèle Asprey

(This is my review as published in the March 2014 issue of The NSW Law Society Journal)

In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, cinemas are banned. Wadjda is the first feature film shot entirely on location there – and its director is a woman. She is Haifaa Al Mansour, a graduate of the University of Sydney, where she earned her Masters in Film Studies.

As a woman in Saudi Arabia, Al Mansour is not allowed to work with men in public. When she was shooting the film on location, she had to remain in a van, communicating with her all-male crew by walkie-talkie and watching the action on monitors. She found this frustrating, and emerged from the van whenever possible, encountering a variety of receptions, from warm to hostile.

This film, with all its flaws, is a little gem, made under incredibly difficult circumstances. It’s a small story, and it might be overly optimistic, but it achieves what it sets out to do with some grace and a lot of fun. Its wonderful young star, Waad Mohammed, gives an energetic and charismatic performance, always with a twinkle in her eye.

The director, speaking at last year’s Sydney Film Festival, told us that she found her young star just one week before the film shoot began. Waad is one of those children who perform at Saudi folk festivals. She doesn’t speak English and her parents are very traditional, but they allowed her to sing and dance, and to make this wonderful little film, thus helping to make Saudi history.

Wadjda is the name of the film’s young heroine, a feisty girl of 10, who lives in a suburb of Riyadh. She wears fashionable sneakers under her long black robe and headscarf and listens to western music. She plays with (and is tormented by) a young boy, Abdullah. This is of course forbidden. Her heart’s desire is to own and ride a bike – also frowned upon for girls in Saudi – so she can race and catch Abdullah.

Wadjda is enterprising, hatching several schemes to make her dream come true. She encounters various obstacles that limit or restrict females, many of which would be intolerable to modern western women. She deals with each obstacle, showing great persistence. As her mother says to Wadjda, “If you put your mind to something, nothing can stop you”.

Wadjda’s mother (played by Reem Abdullah) is a beautiful and intelligent teacher. She also encounters obstacles. When she clashes with her driver, he refuses to continue driving her, so she simply can’t work. Her husband is loving towards her and their daughter, but her mother-in-law is white-anting their relationship. She wants her son to take a second wife so he can have a son, because Wadjda’s mother (known only as “Mother”) is apparently unable to bear another child.

There is a particularly poignant scene when Wadjda sees a family tree that her father has put up in the living room. There are no women’s names on the tree. Wadjda puts up her own name, fixing it with a bobby pin. Her father’s reaction is drastic.

My main criticism of the film is that it tries to have it both ways, showing the bad, but always tempering it with good, even when the bad is intolerable. Still, Wadjda has the most satisfying and hopeful ending I’ve seen in a film in a while – and I want to believe it can come true.

Haifaa Al Mansour told the Sydney Film Festival that the only way to see this film in Saudi Arabia is if it were shown on TV, or if you could watch it on DVD. There were a few private screenings in Saudi when the film was first completed. There, said Al Mansour, the young people “got it”.

Al Mansour is optimistic for the future. There are now 30 female politicians in Saudi, she said, and she wants to go back to Saudi to make a film about young people. It seems the last words of the film, from Wadjda to Abdullah, apply equally to this pioneering young director: “Catch me if you can!”