Wadjda is ten years old. She likes sneakers, rock music and making mix tapes for her friends. She sings pop songs with her mum when they’re washing up and wonders why her dad doesn’t spend more time at home. She makes friendship bracelets to sell at school, and dreams of saving up to buy the green bike in the toy shop down the road. In many ways, she’s just like any little girl you know.
But Wadjda lives in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, and so many of the things she loves can only be enjoyed secretly. Friendship bracelets have to be hidden away under uniforms; singing isn’t acceptable if men are in the house; and bikes, even lovely green ones, aren’t considered appropriate for girls. This utterly charming film – the first made entirely in Saudi Arabia and the first by a Saudi female director – gives us a glimpse of what it means to be a woman in the Kingdom today, and celebrates the pluck and passion of one remarkable, unconventional, determined little girl.
Bikes are potent symbols. Watching Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves with my parents, a few weeks ago, I was struck by the fact that a bike isn’t just two wheels and a seat: it’s freedom; it’s emancipation; it’s a status symbol. And so it’s little wonder that, in a country where women cannot drive or go out without the company of a man, a bike should be seen as a downright scandalous possession for a girl-child.
Nor is it just the restriction of freedom that raises eyebrows. When Wadjda’s mother first hears about her dream, she puts her foot down immediately: it’s well-known that by riding a bike a girl can lose her virginity and then where would they be? In a telling scene, Wadjda’s best friend Abdullah lends her his bike to ride on the flat roof of her house. When her mother bursts out of the house, startling her, Wadjda falls off; her mother, scandalised, shields her eyes and can’t bear to look. “I’m bleeding,” Wadjda whimpers, gazing at her knee. With her hand over her eyes, her mother demands, “From where?!” To Western viewers it seems almost comic, but it’s also profoundly disturbing for what it says about attitudes not only to women but also among women. Of course, the moment that Wadjda’s mother recovers, she’s berating Abdullah (who is also ten) for being alone on the roof with her daughter.
Wadjda’s world is a place of ‘thou shalt not’s. Her female role models are frustrated to various degrees by the restrictions of their lives, which they have internalised over time. Her beautiful, determined mother works, and also keeps a welcoming, hospitable home, but is judged more readily on her reproductive qualities: her husband, Wadjda’s father, chafes at the lack of a son, and is considering taking another wife. At school, Wadjda has her headmistress Ms Hussa, another attractive and educated woman, but one whose life is devoted to stamping out the small signs of rebellion among her pupils. Sharp and uncompromising, she’s a formidable match for Wadjda: a foretaste of what the world outside the walls of school will be. The girls must be covered as soon as they leave the school building; when builders are working on a nearby site, they must stay out of sight. Any hint of physical affection between the girls is ruthlessly crushed.
What’s remarkable is that Wadjda remains resilient. She’s determined to get her bike, so she needs to raise money. And an opportunity comes in the form of the school’s Koran recitation competition. As Wadjda works to perfect her sing-song declamation of the holy texts, her uncharacteristic decorum is welcomed warmly by her teachers, by her mother and even by Ms. Hussa. But can Wadjda put her dreams aside? Should she?
This is an eye-opening chance to see behind the closed doors of Saudi homes, and to get a better idea of what life is like there even for relatively well-off families. The very fact the film was made at all feels like a small triumph, considering the restrictions placed upon women in the Kingdom. Having seen Joy of Madness, I can’t help wondering what the director Haifaa Al-Mansour’s experiences were like. I’ve read that she had to direct the film from the back of a van, interacting with her male cast and crew only via walkie-talkie, which gives you some idea of the logistical ambition of the enterprise. In the end, though, the film was cleared by Saudi censors, even though actresses obviously appear unveiled on screen: these women are ‘seen’ in the most public arena of all.
The entire cast is engaging. It goes without saying that Waad Mohammed is delightful as Wadjda, especially in scenes with the devoted, somewhat henpecked Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), who evidently carries a torch for his unconventional best friend. We also have the chance to see two leading Saudi actresses, in the form of Reem Abdullah as Wadjda’s mother and Ahd as Ms Hussa, both deftly conveying the blend of vulnerability and vigilance that women have to master in order to survive.
Interestingly, Haifaa Al-Mansour hasn’t allowed herself to be typecast as a director of Middle Eastern stories. Her next film, due to be released late this year or early in 2018, will look at women’s struggles from a rather different perspective, as it focuses on the love story between Mary Shelley and her tempestuous poetical husband. I’m intrigued…