It is very important to keep things in perspective when discussing Wadjda. It is the first film from Saudi Arabia to be shot entirely in the country (Riyadh specifically) and the first by a female director (Haifaa Al-Mansour) that has had a chance to be showcased internationally. For a country that has no cinemas and a nonexistent film industry, it is a monumental achievement of accomplished storytelling and craft.

Wadjda is of course the name of a girl and in the film she is a young 10 year old who dreams of being able to own a bike and ride it on the streets. She asks her working mother and absent father (who has bought his wife and daughter a house but lives separately, visiting occasionally) for the money but is denied on the grounds that girls do not ride bikes. Undeterred, she visits the corner bicycle store to look around and soon starts saving up. Realizing she will have to fast track her collection drive lest she lose the bike to someone with more readily available cash, she first starts by selling small handmade items in school and running errands for some of her seniors and then finally enrolls in the school Quran competition which offers a prize money that will more than comfortably cover the cost of her purchase.

Wadjda seems to encapsulate (and use as a template) many of the same aspects as the neorealism films from Iran. In the unfolding of its story also lies a sharp critique of Saudi society, particularly its patriarchal workings and the way women seem to be moulded into almost anticipating being neglected or mistreated by men simply because of their gender. Most telling of this is the situation of Wadjda’s mother, who clearly loves her husband but is prepared to deal with him looking for a second wife and potential bearer of a son. In the way these details are presented on film it becomes obvious that WADJDA is not out to either get easy answers or simply be content with entertaining. As a dual introduction to the director of the film and the potential to tell more honest, humane stories from the Kingdom, Wadjda sends all the right signals.

 Rating: ★★★★½

About Faizan Rashid

A veteran Dubai based film critic, Faizan has been reviewing movies for nearly a decade. His work has been published in local newspapers such as 7days and on prestigious online websites such as MSN Arabia and wearethemovies.com