This is the story of a young girl in Saudi Arabia, Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), who has no interest in conforming to the super-strict gender role that is expected of her.
After seeing a local boy riding around, she becomes obsessed with owning and riding a bike of her own. So she enters the school’s annual Koran quiz tournament (a Koran Bee?) to win the cash prize.
The visual storytelling makes the film largely comprehensible without subtitles right from the opening where we see Wadjda’s scruffy Converses sticking out the bottom of the conservative black robes of her school uniform. Mohammed does an excellent job of portraying the plucky and smart Wadjda, and the script finds moments of happiness in her home life in spite of the largely joyless public arena.
The story of a girl in an oppressive Islamic country who doesn’t conform to her assigned role is similar to this year’s superb The Breadwinner, but Wadjda is less ambitious in its scale, focusing on subtle scenes between family members rather than brutal oppression and war.
As the first film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, and the first Saudi film with a female director, its outlook extends beyond what you see on screen. It’s a labour of love from director Haifaa al-Mansour: filming on the streets of Riyadh she wasn’t allowed to publicly mix with the men on the film crew so was forced to direct much of the film via walkie-talkie from the back of a van. And this passion comes through on screen, resulting in a remarkably uplifting film with a message that will stay with you.