Haifaa Al-Mansour’s little gem is extremely aware of the filmmaker’s goal. Speaking to the Financial Times, Haifaa mentions that, “I decided I didn’t want the film to carry a slogan and scream, but just to create a story where people can laugh and cry a little.” The film takes this maxim to heart, as every measured step in the film helps you move in either or both directions. The filmmaker’s professed aim notwithstanding, the film also becomes a critique, not just of the restrictions imposed, but also in the complicity that allows such restrictions to pass into custom. In one of the charming cases of storytelling where the film’s object of desire is not just a McGuffin, the narrative follows a young girl, Wadjda, who wants to ride a bicycle to race against her friend Abdullah. The simplicity of the premise and the seemingly insurmountable odds that the young protagonist faces set up a conflict that is instantly immersive.
Of course, bicycles have achieved a certain recall value in neorealist cinema. From De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (Italy, 1948), to Marzieh Meshkini’s The Day I Became a Woman (Iran, 2000) the film tips its hat to those that came before it. The style calls back a Makhmalbaf in its sincerity and a Truffaut through its involved filming of a young child. Selecting a story that aspires to invite a positive comparison to these names is no mean task, especially considering that this was the first Saudi Arabian feature film to have ever been shot on location, with Saudi actors by a Saudi filmmaker. In a world where a girl riding a bicycle is a source of conflict, it is deeply satisfying to think that this lofty task was accomplished not by any filmmaker, but a brilliant one who also happens to be a woman. You can read more about Haifaa’s struggles and the challenges of making films in Saudi Arabia here (artsfreedom).
The film’s charm lies in its subtle reflection. It does not make broad edifying claims about the experiences of women in Saudi Arabia, but focuses on small moments of genuine warmth to open us to its story. At the same time, the film does not shy away from the totalizing position that a woman occupies in a society where she is a second-class citizen. Haifaa Al-Mansour explores this question of identity in a fairly simple, but effective manner through the names of the characters. And she achieves this with a lightness of spirit that is brave and stunning in the film. In one scene, Wadjda realizes that her name does not figure in the family tree of her father. Instead of accepting this condition, she simply writes her own name and pins it to the carefully painted canvas. Haifaa does not allow the scene to settle in as triumph with the audience, as she later brings us back to canvas, where the piece of paper with Wadjda’s name is removed and left crushed on the nearby table. There is no punishment, just a sustained and systemic erasure and marginalization. We see the erasure in the case of another primary character, the mother. Played by the expressive Reem Abdullah, the character has no name other than the description of a ‘mother’. This move adds to Reem’s complex portrayal uses her resigned pragmatism to mask her sadness and hope for her daughter.
Wadjda is a different child, established from the very first frame of her colored sneakers that stand out (literally) against the black shoes that all the other girls wear in her school. And the world relates to Wadjda in a different way because she changes the rules of engagement with the world. When asked to wear black shoes like the other girls, she takes a black marker to her shoes. She does not hesitate asking the driver about his daughter. She claims a friendship with the store owner, who reserves the bicycle for her, even when the consensus is that it is not an appropriate toy for a girl. Despite being a small film that has a focused narrative, Wadjda still manages to address issues of migrant experiences, religious taboo, suicide attacks and women’s rights through her childish candor.
Wadjda is often seen wearing a black t-shirt that says ‘I am a great catch’. In her world where she meets child-brides even in her own classroom, that witty remark on a t-shirt becomes all too chillingly real. But her subversive behavior makes us read the t-shirt in a completely different way, where we see that she is a ‘catch’, a situation that forces her mother to choose in a way that goes beyond her own immediate needs. Wadjda makes her mother ignore her own vulnerability as she embraces the needs of her daughter. On the other side, the film does not villainize either Wadjda’s father, who is kind and friendly to his daughter, or the principal who sees a younger self in Wadjda. Their actions are consistent with their world-view, and they are not judged for their actions. Instead it asks after the conditioning of thought that prevents them from empathizing with Wadjda. They are only evaluated for the way their actions affect our primary characters. The principal’s censure of Wadjda isn’t condemned outright by her mother, but she rejects the significance of that censure with her actions.
Ultimately, even though she is persecuted, Wadjda is no victim. She is a smart, inventive and enterprising young woman, who does not make a theatre of her defiance. She quadruples potential income for a simple message delivery through her hustle. She walks into a shopping mall and tries to strike a deal with a shopkeeper to make football bracelets. She is unfazed even when her direct competition is a Chinese industry. Even when she undermines (or directly flaunts) orders from authority figures, be it her mother or the principal, Wadjda avoids being abrasive. It is just a matter of priority and purpose for her. The defiance is incidental to, and not the goal of, her ambition; just like Haifaa Al-Mansour.
SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.