WADJDA begins with a group of Saudi schoolgirls facing their teacher. All except one. The feet of Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) point at a forty-five degree angle to the rest of her class. She sports lace up plimsoll-boots rather than the black shoes worn by her classmates. She does not participate in the religious lesson out of a lack of basic knowledge. She knows more about pop music, which she listens to on a Walkman at home. What she really wants is a bike. A neighbourhood boy races past her on his and pinches her lunch. Wadjda cannot hope to catch him, except on two wheels. But girls aren’t supposed to have bikes. It is just one more prohibition. Girls should stay out of sight of men. Girls should not paint their feet. Girls should not hold hands with other girls. And girls, in Saudi society, should except to grow into women who marry and then discover, if they are unable to bear sons, that their husband will marry again. They have to pay drivers in order to get to work, and these drivers give some lip.
WADJDA is the confident first feature of Haifaa Al Mansour, who is not only Saudi Arabia’s first film director but Saudi’s first woman director. Women aren’t supposed to direct movies; they certainly cannot give men orders through a megaphone. The film represents an enormous act of courage (Al Mansour experienced death threats) and a commitment to her art. It is a pleasure to say that the risk paid off.
Films like WADJDA have the potential to be worthy and insufferable. That would be if Americans or perhaps even the British had been involved on the production side. Al Mansour benefits from a grant from the Hubert Bals Fund. She has been allowed to make her film without any obvious nod to Hollywood. No overtly manipulative soundtrack or voiceover here.
We observe how Wadjda adores her father, when he’s around. He gives her a piece of volcanic rock, which is a subtle reminder of the deep roots of patriarchy (should you be so inclined to look for a metaphor). Wadjda never throws the stone; she is not an aggressive rebel. She is prepared to play the system to achieve her goal. In the beginning, she hopes to raise 800 rial for a bicycle by selling wristbands that she makes in football colours. She sells them cheaper than the market stores. Such wrist bands are forbidden in her school. Then she makes money for being a note carrier for another girl. She gets twenty rial from the girl and another twenty rial from the recipient (cheeky). The other girl becomes a scandal. Wadjda’s teacher mother is intrigued. But this is a very slow way to raise cash. At one point, she and the neighbourhood boy discuss suicide bombers. ‘When you die you get seventy virgins,’ he explains. ‘When I die I’ll get seventy bicycles,’ Wadjda muses. ‘No, it does not work like that!’ So Wadjda decides to enter a Koran recitation competition and she spends her savings – 62 rial – on a DVD game that will help; the graphics resemble WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE.
For a rebel like Wadjda, classes are hard going. She has to learn to recite the text musically. In my favourite scene, she falls out with the neighbourhood boy. ‘I’ll give you twenty rial if you stop crying!’ he says. With her back to him, Wadjda offers her palm.
One subplot involves her mother’s driver quitting. Wadjda goes to his house with the neighbourhood boy to get him back. The boy proves to be extremely persuasive. His uncle is a man with a prominent moustache who is standing for election. The boy wants to hang lights from Wadjda’s house. She lets him do so as long as she can ride the bike, which she does in a faltering manner. Wadjda’s mother is tempted to get a new job at the hospital. But the liberal atmosphere – women’s heads are uncovered – is too much for her.
The Koran competition is an excellent set piece. If you’ve seen films about Spelling Bees, you’ll know what to expect. Even better is the ending. I loved the scene when Wadjda hugs a character, with her eyes looking understandably elsewhere.
THE KID WITH A BIKE was my favourite film of 2012. WADJDA – the girl with a bike – is one of my favourites of 2013. At a time when the Tour de France dominates our television screens, I am more interested in WADJDA than who holds the yellow jersey, which at time of writing – 18 July – is Chris Froome’s to lose.