Movie Reviews

‘Wadja’: A two-wheeled breakthrough in Saudi Arabia | 3 stars

Updated: 2013-10-30T21:40:27Z

By JON NICCUM

Special to The Star

We first meet 10-year-old Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) among a group of fellow schoolgirls reciting the phrase, “I give myself to God.”

The opening shot pans across their feet, revealing a collection of conservative dark footwear. Only a pair of Chuck Taylor high-tops with purple laces stands out from the others. These belong to Wadjda, who is scolded for not paying attention. The message is clear: A free-spirited child yearns to break away from a repressive institution.

The spunky “Wadjda” offers a familiar story in an unfamiliar setting. The movie is the first feature ever shot entirely in Saudi Arabia. It’s the passion project of female filmmaker Haifaa al-Mansour, who often had to direct her actors by walkie-talkie while hiding in a production van.

Her hard-fought efforts paid off because “Wadjda” represents Saudi Arabia’s official submission for the Oscars’ best foreign language film.

Outside of school, Wadjda befriends a neighborhood boy, Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani). He teases her while riding his bike, and she boasts that once she has raised enough money to purchase one of her own, she will beat him in a race. Abdullah finds the challenge hilarious.

In Saudi Arabia, women aren’t allowed to ride bikes.

Despite being shot in Riyadh, the film seems aimed more at Western audiences. (A savvy choice, considering no theaters exist in the country.) The clever and opportunistic heroine listens to American pop music — Grouplove, for instance — that she tapes off a pirated signal. At home, she’s allowed to swap the traditional abaya for a T-shirt reading “I am a great catch.”

The pioneering picture is confidently written by al-Mansour (a Saudi native with a master’s in film from the University of Sydney), who also displays a keen eye for staging. In one scene, Wadjda gazes longingly at a bike mounted to the top of a car zooming past on a nearby highway. The bike is the only thing poking above a noise-dampening wall, seeming to float through the air.

Al-Mansour excels at showing the routine aspects of religious and cultural repression. Wadjda makes sports bracelets from yarn to raise money for the emerald-green bike of her dreams, even though her elegant mother (Reem Abdullah) disapproves of such nonsense. But Mom also faces her own vehicle troubles because her three-hour job commute is at the mercy of a hired driver — women aren’t allowed to drive cars, either.

This meticulous subjugation is hammered home during a scene where Wadjda studies a family tree display made by her absentee father (Sultan Al Assaf). These trees include only male relatives. So the proactive girl writes her name on a piece of notebook paper and tacks it up by her father’s.

In April, Saudi Arabia altered a law to now make it acceptable for women to ride bikes … only in parks or recreation areas. Dressed in the full black abaya. And accompanied by a male relative.

Progress.

(At the Glenwood at Red Bridge, Tivoli, Town Center.)

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