The first ever feature film entirely shot in Saudi Arabia, where there are no cinemas and public spaces are segregated according to gender, is written and directed by a woman, Haifaa Al Mansour. The film tells the story of Wadjda, a rebellious 10-year-old girl, who enters a Koran-reading competition at her madrasa, planning to use the prize money to buy herself a bicycle, in a culture where women are not encouraged to cycle.
There is a lot to be praised about Wadjda. Indeed, there are so many powerful scenes in the film which delicately tell us about womanhood and women’s place in a culture dominated by religious values and rules. The camera travels between a house, a school, a playground, a little street with a bicycle shop, and a roof top. Wadjda, living within this limited and conservative space, is a witty, clever and, at the same time, powerful character whose imagination and ideas are limitless. It offers an interesting parallel with Al Mansour, who had to film Wadjda’s limitless world from within the very limited space of a little van. Indeed, she directed the exterior scenes in Riyadh from inside a van, watching the actors on monitors and communicating via walkie-talkie. As she explains in an interview, ‘Conservatives may have interrupted filming had they seen me or called the police. We had sandstorms to deal with, getting access to locations – we didn’t need to worry about people protesting, too,’ she laughs. ‘I didn’t want to go and fight with people, I’m not an activist, I’m an artist.’
The references to polygamy, loss of virginity, child brides, the implications of veiling, and religion’s place in education make the film thought-provoking. One scene in particular, however, is remarkable: Wadjda is secretly learning to cycle in the rooftop of her house, but she panics as her mother approaches, falls off the bicycle and hurts her knee. As she cries out ‘I’m bleeding!’ the mother covers her face with shame mistakenly thinking her daughter is bleeding for having ridden the bike and lost her virginity. The scene is astutely narrated, skillfully performed and brilliantly filmed.
In an interview with the BBC, Al Mansour discusses the importance of introducing change in Saudi society while acknowledging that ‘change is a painful process’, and that she wanted ‘to allow people to embrace change in their own pace’ as ‘change has to come from heart.’ Both Al Mansour and Wadjda present us with an idea of change around the perceptions of womanhood and women’s place in Saudi society that is not imposed upon people but one that is heartfelt and embraced by them. Change is embedded in the film in the image of a bicycle. The bicycle represents independence, mobility, freedom and imagination. At the end of the film when we see Wadjda cycling to the borders of the town and stopping by the motorway, we are assured that there are new worlds and possibilities she is now able to explore.
Al Mansour engages in self-expression through a subtle yet powerful focus on the social, the cultural and the political through the story of a little girl who dares. It is not surprising to learn that Wadjda’s character is very similar to Al Mansour’s in real life. Indeed, she states on the film’s website that she comes from a small town in Saudi Arabia ‘where there are many girls like Wadjda who have big dreams, strong characters and so much potential. These girls can, and will reshape and redefine our nation.’ This message of female solidarity also comes across in an interview with Al Mansour in which she emphasises that "women have to stick together and believe in themselves and push towards what makes them happy. We just need to push a little bit harder against tradition. We need to do things and make things and tell the stories that we want to tell. And I think the world is ready to listen." What Wadjda tells us is that there are no limits to how much women can push for change even from the limited space of a little town or while directing a film from within a little van.