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wadjda review
A young Saudi girl attempts to raise funds to purchase a forbidden bicycle.

Review by Jason Abbey

Directed by: Haifaa Al-Mansour

Starring: Reem Abdullah, Waad Mohammed, Abdullrahman Al Gohani, Sultan Al Assaf


wadjda poster

Haifaa Al-Mansour’s gem of a movie rests on a simple premise. A rebellious teenage girl called Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) wants a bike and will do everything in her power to make it happen, in a society that deems women should not be seen or heard. The focus may be on the minutiae of life but its reach is far wider. Kes is about so much more than just a boy and his Kestrel, and that other film about a missing bike by De Sica is so much more than a hunt for missing transportation. Let’s throw in that other masterpiece on two wheels, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, although that may be stretching a point.

In truth this is a film about two brave rebellious women. Al-Mansour has not only made the first film by a Saudi Arabian woman but also shot it (with German finance) in a country in which public cinemas were banned at the time. In a conservative, some would say misogynistic culture this is a miracle every bit as inspiring as its titular heroine. This act alone would be enough to generate goodwill even if the resulting work was merely average.

wadjda review


Thankfully it is a sharply made, beautifully shot piece of work. Politically incisive without being hectoring and bellicose, Al-Mansour directs with a silk glove, not an iron fist. Though this is very much a Saudi story, it is one that is told with universal appeal.

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Wadjda opens like any Western film about teenage desires and growing up, with a young girl getting dressed listening to pop music, getting her Converse boots on, ready for a day at school. All that’s missing is the late breakfast and missing the school bus, and you could be in Hollywood. Going out without a headscarf and answering back to the driver assigned to take her mother (Reem Abdullah) to her job, she comes across like any other teenage girl. It is only when she is told that "a woman’s voice should not be heard outside by men" that you realise how removed from the religious orthodoxy of Riyadh she actually is.

wadjda review


Played with spiky self assurance and cheeky charisma by Mohammed, Wadjda is the film's ace in the pack. Never playing to the camera and always believably a kid rather than a little adult, it is not a stretch to say it is one of the greatest performances by a child put on film. Whether haggling with the friendly owner of the toy shop or rough housing with her friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), there is always a brightness and spark to the performance. Wadjda's friendship with Abdullah forms the crux of the story. It is his bike that sparks her desire to compete with the other boys and in his declaration that he will marry her, a hint of melancholy that her spark may eventually be dampened as she has to conform to religious and cultural orthodoxy.

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For all its sweetness, Al-Mansour has inserted some subversive ideas into her narrative. None more so than in the scheme Wadjda hatches, which involves entering a competition to recite the Koran, which comes with a prize that will give her enough money to buy her beloved bicycle. At no stage are we led to believe that she is undergoing a religious conversion. This is all about keeping her eye on the prize. She may hoodwink the teachers in the madrasa but we, the audience, are left in no doubt where her interests lie.

wadjda review


Al-Mansour also gives short shrift to a patriarchal society that seeks to repress women. Wadjda's father is depicted as a benign but feckless individual, all too eager to go along with his family's wishes for a second wife to produce a male offspring. One of her fellow pupils shows pictures of her wedding day, despite her only being about 10 years old, and most disturbingly, a worker on a building site encourages Wadjda to "come up here and let me touch those little apples."

If Al-Mansour ends the film on a note of female solidarity between mother and daughter, it is one that has been hard earned. For all its beauty, it is not afraid to casually drop in discussions about suicide bombers and the more arcane elements of the Koran and female menstrual blood. The final words in this wonderful movie are "catch me if you can"; this could be an exhortation to Wadjda's putative partner if he wants to marry her or a challenge to a culture that is falling backwards and needs to modernise.

Wadjda is on Netflix UK and MUBI UK May 20th.