Wadjda has the burden of being “first,” as in, it’s the first movie ever filmed in Saudi Arabia. This is a place with no film industry and no movie theaters. The filmmakers and cast, from director Haifaa al-Monsour and her mostly German crew to her lead actress, young Waad Mohammed, bear up under this well. The result is an engaging, unpretentious story of an 11-year-old girl who wants a bicycle. She just happens to live in a country where many believe that girls—or women—should not be allowed to ride bicycles.
Wadjda (Mohammed) lives with her mother (Reem Abdullah) in the sun-bleached, sprawling yet oddly austere city Riyadh; her father (Sultan Al Assaf), for reasons not immediately provided, does not live with them full-time. Her mother works at an all-women’s hospital that’s a 90-minute ride across town; as women can’t drive in Saudi Arabia, she has to rely on a hired driver for her daily commute. Wadjda attends a girls’ school where the rules are strict and the headmistress (Ahd Kamel) is unforgiving of the slightest infraction.
There are so many rules, for both mother and daughter. Don’t speak when outdoors; women aren’t supposed to be heard. Don’t forget your headscarf. Don’t get caught outside with a man who is not a member of your own family. If you’ve prepared dinner for your husband and his friends, leave the food outside the room where the men are, knock on the door, and wait for your husband to come and get it. Don’t touch the Koran directly if you’re menstruating; use a tissue.
If this all sounds crushingly depressing to Western ears, it is and it isn’t. Wadjda isn’t a political tract; all these details are revealed in the filmmaker’s own good time. The film follows the characters as they live their day-to-day lives, and, with some cunning, disguises its narrative strategies in minute-to-minute detail.
No fingers are pointed. Everyone has their reasons. It emerges that Wadjda’s father is being pulled away from his wife and daughter by parental-cultural pressure and Wadjda’s mother’s obnoxious driver turns out to have very good reasons to be unhappy. It is eventually revealed that some corners of Saudi society aren’t as restrictive as the rules adhered to by Wadjda’s parents suggest. The film’s portrait of Saudi Arabia has a wealth of detail, yet resists any overarching attempt to provide “understanding.” Mystery is, rightly, preserved.
If Wadjda is not judgmental, it is still melancholy. And that is its most appealing quality.