4 stars
Ten year old Wadjda lives with her mother in a suburb of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Occasionally her father drops by, but he's more interested in securing a second wife than the concerns of his daughter and her mother. While Wadjda is interested in this change in family dynamic, she's much more focussed on a green bicycle. A little because she's a tomboy for whom regulation means little (in a country where women don't drive, girls certainly don't cycle), but mostly because she wants to beat her friend Abdullah in a race.

This is the sum of this impeccable drama, the first film made by a woman in Saudi Arabia, a country without cinemas. In fact, to shoot some of the outdoor scenes, director Haifaa Al-Mansour had to remain inside a van and shout instructions through a megaphone. And it's cultural divergence like this which makes Wadjda such a charmer. You can't help but feel the director's cheery determination to make this movie in Wadjda's cheery determination to buy a bike: when her mother says no, the enterprising, Converse Allstars and hijab wearing girl enters a Koran recitation competition to win the cash she needs. But unknown to her, the school has other plans for the money. To call it a feel-good film undermines much of the likeability of the story, this isn't nearly so calculated. The goodwill audiences feel springs naturally from Wadjda's cheeky charm and her inclination to curve, if not exactly bend the rules.

Apart from Waad Mohammed's utterly compelling performance, what makes Wadjda so engaging is the consideration of cultural norms that occur at the edges of the film. There's no evangelising nor judgment; these are the day-to-day realities of life in Saudi and are delivered as such. Occasions when school girls are ushered away from the prying eyes of lecherous workmen or lectured on appropriate clothing is little more than reflecting everyday life in Riyadh. Which, in this context, is little different from life in any city. As the film opens a window on a society seldom seen, the drama is found in small ticket items like Wadjda's entanglement with a pious religious studies teacher, and supporting her mother against her father's indifference. And it's in these finely nuanced observations that this gem of a film truly shines.


Previewed at Village Roadshow Theatrette, Sydney, on 11 March 2014



Waad Mohammed
Reem Abdullah
Abdullrahman Al Gohani

Haifaa Al-Mansour

Haifaa Al-Mansour

Saudi Arabia (subtitles)


98 minutes

March 20, 2014
Wadjda (2012) on IMDb
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