The Movie Waffler New Release Review - Wadjda | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - Wadjda

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

Directed by: Haifaa Al-Mansour
Starring: Reem Abdullah, Waad Mohammed, Abdullrahman Al Gohani

Wadjda (Mohammed) is a ten-year-old girl who wishes to own a bicycle so she can enjoy cycling with her friend, a local boy. In her country of Saudi Arabia, however, the idea of females indulging in cycling is highly frowned upon. Because of this, her mother (Abdullah) refuses to buy a bicycle so Wadjda determines to raise the money herself. Initially she slowly gets some cash together, selling hand-made bracelets to her schoolmates but the principal forbids her to continue this trade. When a cash prize is offered for the winner of a Quran recital contest, Wadjda enters, despite having no interest in religion.
There's a memorable scene in Bob Fosse's 'Cabaret' revolving around a cheerful outdoor gathering. Fosse shows us a cherubic young German boy singing a folk song in close-up, cutting to the delighted faces of his adult audience. It seems like an idyllic moment until Fosse's camera begins to slowly track down the body of the young boy, revealing a swastika armband. It's a subtle piece of direction which transforms the tone of the scene drastically. 'Wadjda' opens in similar fashion. We see the young protagonist dancing around her bedroom, listening to western pop music, putting on jeans and a pair of Converse-type boots. It could be the opening of an eighties John Hughes movie (young Wadjda still listens to her music on cassette tapes), until the scene ends with Wadjda exiting her house, clad head to toe in a burqa. Director Al-Mansour doesn't shove her message down our throats, she doesn't have to. Presenting Saudi culture in the matter of fact way she does makes it seem all the more shocking and anger inducing to outsiders.
'Wadjda' is a revolutionary film in every sense of the word. It's the first feature film shot in Saudi Arabia, a country where cinemas are still banned. Remarkably, given the Saudi kingdom is arguably the most misogynistic society on earth, it's directed by a woman, albeit one who now lives in exile in Bahrain. 
The phrase "brave performance" always offends me, as if acting is somehow on a par with being a firefighter, but in Mohammed's case it's certainly no hyperbolic statement, given we've seen girls her age targeted by extremists for speaking out in favor of female rights in the Islamic world. Mohammed is fantastic here, delivering possibly the most impressive performance of what has been a remarkable year for child actors. Her character is instantly likable, a smart-ass who knows she's always the cleverest person in the room, but never becomes irritating like the smarmy kids we see in most Western movies. She's a midget Cool Hand Luke, doing her best to work a system that's designed to crush her spirit.
I laughed more times during this film than any other this year, much of the comedy coming from Wadjda's mother's fear of her daughter's impending womanhood (when Wadjda tells her mother she's bleeding, her mother's first thought is that she has somehow lost her virginity) and from the ridiculous nature of religious mumbo-jumbo ("Don't leave the Quran open," Wadjda's mother exclaims, "The devil might spit in it!"). There are also moments which had my blood-boiling, particularly the denouement of a 'Rocky' like climax.
In a summer dominated by overblown superhero movies, here's a super movie with a real hero.

Eric Hillis