We kick off our list of the top 10 films of 2013 with Wadjda – a funny, romantic drama based on a Riyadh girl’s quest to buy a bike that’s Saudi Arabia’s first film directed by a woman. We’ll be launching the remainder of our top 10 daily over the next two weeks
Wadjda is the first Saudi Arabian feature to be directed by a woman. Shot in the suburbs of Riyadh, Haifaa Al-Mansour’s film tells the story of an 10-year-old who wants to buy a green bicycle to race against her friend Abdullah.
Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) shouldn’t want a bike (her mum’s worried – it could ruin her virginity), she shouldn’t – as a girl on the edge of puberty – really be playing with Abdullah. But she does, cheerfully and with cursory regard for mum’s fretting or the disapproval of her staunchly traditionalist teacher. She wears Converse under her traditional garb – a handy visual metaphor for the film itself.
Because Wadjda is a funny, romantic story hiding its political edge. It subverts the western fallacy that womanhood in traditionalist Islamic countries must always be miserable, while never soft-pedalling in its push for reform. Religion is part and parcel of the restrictions on Wadjda’s daily life, but she’s learned to use the system to get what she wants. A Qur’an reading competition at school offers her the chance to win the money for the bike. So she acts the model student and gets her head in the book. The real reason for her new-found interest in devout study is kept secret.
Wadjda is a film about working for change under the radar, with small victories. Al-Mansour had to a make sacrifices to get the film made. In the more conservative neighbourhoods of Riyadh she directed scenes from inside a van, for fear of sparking protests. Some have questioned how restrictions like this can provoke anything but fury. But this film shows that there are subtle ways to attack injustice. Wadjda’s response when faced with the outrage of her teacher is to sigh. The older woman is enforcing men’s rules, which – for Wadjda – are to be shouldered only if they can’t be shrugged off. There’s no out-and-out polemic against Saudi society. It’s the everyday nature of Wadjda’s frustration that gets to you.
Al-Mansour has described Saudi Arabia as a “moving society” – a male-dominated country that is slowing coming around to the need for change. She is necessarily idealistic – her criticism of her country is delivered inside a love letter to her people and to custom. And her method seems to work. The film’s nomination as Saudi Arabia’s Oscar contender is an implicit nod of approval from the country’s mainstream. Al-Mansour, like Wadjda, walks the line between what she wants and what she can get away with.