Director: Haifaa al-Mansour
The title character of the Saudi Arabian drama Wadjda is hardly perfect. She can be selfish, stubborn, insolent and immature. Did I mention she’s ten? In her world, unfortunately, that’s not a valid excuse. Charming and eye opening, the movie is about a girl in Riyadh (Waad Mohammed) who’ll do whatever it takes to afford a bicycle. Though everyone keeps reminding her that bikes are for boys, not girls, Wadjda is determined. At her school, where much of the story takes place, the other students are brainwashed and shamed until they’ve become obedient zombies. With her unabashed pluckiness and appearance (including a frequently displayed pair of ragged, untied sneakers), Wadjda is an unconscious preteen rebel. She makes an irresistible underdog protagonist simply because she’s brave enough to be unique in a society where all women are expected to look and act alike. Her two most significant role models—her strict headmistress (Ahd Kamel) and overwhelmed mother (Reem Abdullah)—are both incredible beauties who are required to hide their faces and, in a clever parallel, negotiate rides from strangers since it’s illegal for them to drive. Wadjda is the first feature film produced in Saudi Arabia, and it was written and directed by a woman (Haifaa al-Monsour). So while it celebrates its heroine’s innocence, it also questions whether she’ll succeed in retaining her individuality in a culture so intent on destroying it. Wadjda isn’t the most original (using bicycles as metaphors is an old cinema cliché), yet without resorting to melodrama or blatant politicizing, it offers a bittersweet view into a universe where childish misbehavior is deemed a small form of dissidence.