Wadjda is a beautiful battle cry
Starring Waad Mohammed and Reem Abdullah. Rated G.
Saudi Arabia’s first film by a female director opens with a forbidden peek under shapeless abayas, where, amid all the shiny little-girl shoes, one wears rebellious black Chuck Taylors.
As you may have guessed, this is not a country for girls who want to wear Chuck Taylors, let alone have the spirit of the title character (Waad Mohammed), a spunky 10-year-old who dreams of riding a bike in a country so delusionally oppressive it considers cycling a threat to a girl’s hymen. And so begins a film that’s not only a fascinating glimpse beneath the hijab of a closed world, but one with such a winsome heroine that you can’t help but get hopelessly drawn into her quest.
Whereas coming-of-age tales in American movies are often celebratory, the milestone will signify the end of any small freedoms the young Wadjda enjoys. She’s already being told to veil her entire face when she leaves the walled compound of her girls’ school, and her classmates are being married off or ordered to pick up the Qur’an with tissues when they get their periods. For now, Wadjda can hang out with the little boy down the street and tease him that she will someday race him on his bike. But not for long. And clearly, things will only get worse as she gets older: unable to bear a son, her mother frets constantly that her husband will find a second wife.
Writer-director Haifaa Al-Mansour’s brilliance is not just in the fablelike simplicity of the story, which she shoots atmospherically around the dusty construction grounds of a Riyadh suburb. It’s that she so beautifully humanizes the women in the film. They aren’t helpless victims; Wadjda’s pirate radio, her underground bracelet-making biz, and her sneakers show she’s trying to stand up for herself under the fist of religious fundamentalism.
The film holds out an ember of hope that her generation might be able to bring about change. It’s a battle cry that makes this essential viewing for women everywhere—except, of course, it can’t be screened in the country where it was made. Movie theatres were banned in the 1980s. Maybe those were seen as a threat to the hymen too.