Written & Directed by Haifaa al-Mansour
Wadjda is a ten-year-old girl living in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and wants nothing more than to own her bicycle. She sets her eyes on a brand new one delivered to a neighborhood store, but both the cost and her culture get in the girl’s way of getting the bike. Wadjda starts making and selling mixtapes and bracelets to the other students at her school and even gets paid to help an older student sneak off with her boyfriend. At home, there is tension between her parents as Wadjda’s mother cannot have more children, so her mother-in-law has been searching for a second wife for Wadjda’s father. Add to this her mother’s dependency on a male driver to ferry her to and from a teaching position on the edge of the city, and it becomes pronounced how life for women in this culture is strewn with difficulties and oppression. Wadjda believes that if she can win a Koran recitation competition, she’ll have the money she needs to buy her dream bike.
There isn’t much surprising in the plot of Wajdja; you can see where this story is going from the outset. What raises it above most family drama fare is the outstanding performance from Waad Mohammed, the child actor playing Wadjda. She brings such a natural spunky rebelliousness to the role that you can’t help root for her no matters the obstacles in the way. Her eyes examine the situations around her, and she isn’t afraid to express her dislike once she has a survey of the players. There’s no fear in talking back to adults and standing up for herself. During a visit to the mall, she looks over the goods of a merchant selling woven bracelets like the ones she makes for her classmates. She expresses that her merchandise is over better quality and she sells them for cheaper before running off to catch up with her mother.
While the apparent notions about female oppression in theocracies are present, there is also some interesting commentary on gender norms and sexuality. Wadjda doesn’t want to be a feminine Western but rather forge her path. The music she listens to, the way she has mastered first-person shooters better than her dad, and the floppy marker detailed sneakers she wears all point to a character who isn’t just shaking off the rules and laws surrounding her gender but saying she doesn’t want to play the gender game at all.
Director al-Mansour also has something to say about the distortion of religion. Wadjda’s hope comes in the chance to win a monetary prize in a Koran recitation competition, cutting out all the spiritual growth that might arise from studying any book of scripture. To achieve this task she spends what little money she has on a Playstation program that presents Koran trivia. This isn’t a religion serving to uplift or enlighten these young women, but just a thing twisted into oppressive laws and another way for influential people to make money off of everyone else. This isn’t just a critique applicable to the Muslim world but one that is all too true for the commercialization of Christianity in the West.
The most blatant perpetrators of oppression ironically enough are other women. Wadjda’s father, her mother’s driver, and a neighborhood boy are about the only male figures she has any regular contact with. The people in her life dictating how she should act and present herself are her mother and the headmistress of the school. In private these women wear make-up and beautiful clothes, so there isn’t a complete rejection of Western ideals. They go to a mall where the mother tries on a dress that she thinks might convince the husband not to take a second wife, but never wears it for him. So much of what these women do is shaped around not the fear of being abused but the fear of having their value in the eyes of men taken away. The mother is continuously talking to her friends on the phone or to Wadjda’s about another woman catching her husbands eyes. These women and girls have been so disunified that they only know how to impose these rules on each other.
While there is much sadness in this film, there is ultimately a sense that people of a younger generation will escape the cycle. That will only happen if an older generation empowers them, tells them they are capable of significant change and to make a better future.