A film of firsts, Haifaa al-Mansour’s endearing and engaging tale is also first-class entertainment. As well as the novelty of watching a feature entirely shot in Saudi Arabia, we’re also witness to the inaugural creation of a female Saudi director – Haifaa al-Mansour.
Evoking memories of works by Italian neo-realists, Belgium’s Dardenne Brothers and Ken Loach, Wadjda is a universal tale of a young girl finding her voice (in a country where that’s equated with “her nakedness”) that also offers a fascinating insight into Saudi society.
Being singled out for her Bata Bullets with purple laces is just the latest brush with authority for 11-year-old Riyadh resident Wadjda (Waad Mohammad). She might be the apple of her shift-working father’s eye but she’s certainly not her principal’s favourite pupil. Whether it’s selling bracelets to school mates or distributing tapes with love songs on it, Wadjda is quite the troublesome rebel and little businesswoman (saving her pennies in order to buy a bicycle with yellow and green ribbons). However, when she acts as a lookout for an older girl’s liaison with a “man who is not of her family” she’s threatened with expulsion. But miraculously along comes something that may solve both her problems – a Koran-based competition that would not only put her back in the school’s good books but also offers prize money.
Famously mostly directed from the back of a van due to Saudi’s strict laws and traditions around female-male interactions, al-Mansour does a startling job of creating a film that stirs the emotions. It helps that she has such a charismatic young lead in Mohammad whose character’s indefatigable optimism and entrepreneurialism ensures the film never gets too morose or maudlin. There are also some terrifically comical moments, like the multi-choice learn the Koran video game Wadjda purchases to help with her swot or her friendly rivalry with neighbourhood boy Abdullah (Abdullrahman Algohani).
That doesn’t mean that its flippant or ignores its backdrop though. The struggles of Wadjda’s mother (Reem Abdullah) are heartbreakingly laid out, whether it’s a three-hour commute to work, the pain of finding her husband has decided to take another wife or his response to their financial dire straits – “bear me a son and everything will be alright.” A slice of global cinema that deserves to be seen in cinemas, if only because those in the country of its origin cannot.
Wadjda opens in New Zealand cinemas on Thursday.