‘I’ve got a bike, you can ride it if you like…
…You’re the kind of girl that fits in with my world.
I’ll give you anything, everything, if you want things.’ Syd Barrett
Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) has issues that many teenage girls have to contend with: parents, school, friends and cool things to be engaged in – whether that be what to wear, what to watch or what to do. Her best friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani) is also her main rival, but Abdullah has something that Wadjda wants more than anything. A bike. If she had a bike she could be free, independent and could beat Abdullah at cycling – she wants to beat him at everything. But a bike is expensive. Her parents won’t buy one for her, after all, she’s a girl and girls don’t ride bikes. So she decides to save up for one and asks a local toyshop owner to reserve a particular model for her until she can find the cash. In order to obtain the finances, she enters a school competition, much to the surprise of her headmistress, to recite major passages of the Quran by memory and with correct pronunciation. But she has other pressures: family life is not great – her mother (Reem Abdullah) has to balance her needs for fancy clothes, food deliveries and negotiating taxis with a desperate desire to hold onto Wadjda’s father (Sultan Al Assaf), who is increasingly absent from the home. He wants a son – which Wadjda cannot be and her mother cannot provide. Culture and family drama collide, with potentially heartbreaking problems for everyone.
There are a number of cinematic precedents for Wadjda, from the rebellious youngster of Persepolis (2007) to the (severe) social problems of two children in The Apple (Samira Makhmalbaf ) which give Wadjda an air of familiarity and yet it is distinctly its own piece. Wadjda the film is the first feature length film to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia (and the first by a female director). Wadjda the character (a wonderful performance from Waad Mohammed) is instantly likeable; she mocks elder males (‘Even your money stinks of cologne.’) and wears customised baseball boots under her chador. What is so delightful about this film is that it is, at heart, a story about growing up, as we see Wadjda dealing with her desires and her social obligations in a way that is never patronising to any of the parties involved. Those parties – and indeed society – have strict definitions of acceptable social behaviour , something that young teenagers do not. Even Wadjda’s headmistress enforces these values, severely punishing those who violate traditional conventions, no matter how minor the offence. Wadjda is all too aware of the consequences of transgressing the rules in a society where even innocent gestures can be misconstrued, with significant penalties for those involved. She is rebellious but naïve – she knows the rules but does not understand why they are there and she is determined to achieve her goals whether she gets approval from her elders or not.
Wadjda could easily be named Rebel Without a Bike; it has a simple premise but overall the construction and characterisation make for a film that is, like its protagonist, a mixed bag. Art-house but not arty, rebellious but not confrontational, dramatic but not extreme, heart-warming but never sickly. If you haven’t seen it, pedal over to your local cinema…providing you have purchased a reasonable bike and can hurtle at a speed suitable for cyclists.