Ten-year-old Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) wants nothing more than a bike to ride with her friends; this being Saudi Arabia, however, such activity is forbidden for women. Nevertheless, Wadjda is determined to raise the money she needs to buy her dream bicycle, and so surprises everyone by entering the school’s Koran competition—with an eye firmly on the prize money.
While Wadjda has garnered huge press because it’s the first Saudi film to be directed by a woman—a remarkable achievement for Haifaa Al-Mansour—it has a life of its own beyond that novelty. By distilling the far-reaching themes of Middle Eastern gender traditions into this endearing story of a young girl determined to realise her dreams, Al-Mansour has made her political subtext accessible (particularly to a Western audience) without disrespecting her community’s beliefw, or diluting the power of her message. Set against the backdrop of extreme gender politics, this simple, universal story of a girl and her bike becomes a quest for freedom.
Wadjda represents the innocence of youth, and perhaps, as the film progresses, a new generation more prepared to challenge the existing status quo; although, of course, she would never think of herself as such. The adults of the story—most notably Wadjda’s frustrated mother (Reem Abdullah), an ambitious woman who is constrained by her role as passive wife and mother and struggling with the demands placed on her by the expectations of society and her (mostly absent) husband—shoulder the weight of social responsibility, and effectively showcase the extreme limitations placed on females.
That leaves Wadjda to be the free spirit this story needs; while her future may be an undeniable cloud on the horizon, for now she is happy to breeze through life, in colourful contrast to the expectations of the world around her. She is an inspiration for little girls (and women) everywhere, no matter where they might live.