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D: Haifaa Al-Mansour / 97m

Cast: Reem Abdullah, Waad Mohammed, Abdullrahman Al Gohani, Ahd, Sultan Al Assaf, Alanoud Sajini, Rafa Al Sanea, Dana Abdullilah, Rehab Ahmed, Nouf Saad, Ibrahim Almozael, Mohammed Zahir, Sara Aljaber

Wadjda (Mohammed) is an eleven year old girl living with her mother (Abdullah) in Riyadh. She regularly undermines the rules and restrictions of the school she attends, and remains unconvinced that the demands of the Qu’ran are at all necessary. She is friends with a boy, Abdullah (Al Gohani), who lives opposite her, but they have a bit of a combative friendship. When he mischievously steals her headscarf while riding his bike, Wadjda chases after him. This leads to her challenging him to a race when she has her own bike. However, the idea of girls riding bikes is frowned upon and Wadjda’s mother refuses to buy her one. But when Wadjda sees a green bike, she determines to buy it herself.

When her entrepreneurial activities at the school are curtailed by the headmistress, Ms Hussa (Ahd), Wadjda is unsure how she will raise the 800 riyals she needs to purchase the bike. Meanwhile, her mother is struggling to retain the attention of her husband and Wadjda’s father (Al Assaf); he is planning to marry a second time but Wadjda’s mother is convinced he won’t go through with it. Back at the school, Ms Hussa announces there’s to be a Qu’ran recital competition, one that carries a first prize of 1,000 riyals. Although she has little interest or knowledge in the Qu’ran, Wadjda joins the Religious Club and begins to learn sections of the Qu’ran by heart as well as the meaning of certain words and phrases. She gains the respect of Ms Hussa, and helps Abdullah when he asks to string some lights from his house to hers in aid of his uncle’s political election campaign (even though her mother is against it). While Abdullah works on the lights, Wadjda learns to ride on his bike.

The day of the recital arrives and Wadjda puts in an impressive performance. When she arrives home she finds her father there, but not her mother. She falls asleep, waking later that evening, and finds her mother up on the roof, listening to the sounds of a party nearby. It’s then that Wadjda learns both good and bad news, and receives reassurances as to her future.

Wadjda - scene

The first feature movie ever to be made fully in Saudi Arabia, and the first to be made by a female director, Wadjda is a delightful, life-affirming confection that is alternately funny, thought-provoking and heartfelt. It mixes gentle yet pointed observations about the role of women in Saudi society, and the pressures placed upon them by the male-dominated hierarchy, and finds subtle ways in which to subvert those pressures (Wadjda, for example, regularly goes about without her face covered, despite being of marital age; she also spends time with Abdullah unchaperoned, another no-no).

With nods to the neorealism of Italian cinema, this could be looked on as a variation of De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1953), but while the two movies share some vital DNA, Al-Mansour’s ode to childhood determinism works on a whole different set of levels, with social constraints and religious approbation strongly to the fore, and providing a rigid backdrop against which Wadjda’s efforts to secure her bike take place. It’s a clever piece of propaganda, though, showing how little real regard Wadjda’s fellow schoolchildren have for the rules that govern their lives. One girl meets her boyfriend in secret, while two others bend the rules by using make up when they shouldn’t; Wadjda herself sells hand-braided bracelets to the other pupils. It’s fun to see these girls behaving like the children they are, but Al-Mansour is canny enough to show through the actions and behaviour of the adults around them that it won’t last forever.

This celebration of childhood goes a long way to providing the heart of the movie, allowing the viewer several insights into Saudi life through young eyes. First-timer Mohammed is superb as Wadjda, funny and endlessly expressive, a mesmerising screen presence able to raise a smile or prompt a tear with seemingly little effort. In her scenes with Abdullah there’s a genuine bond between the characters that makes their interaction entirely credible and sincere. (Al-Mansour needed plenty of rehearsal time due to the constraints imposed on her by the filming process, which meant she couldn’t mix with the male crew members; some things, it seems, have a way of working out). Abdullah is equally as good, juggling the emotional demands of losing a husband with those attendant on being – effectively – a single working mother. The scene in which she tries on a red dress – meant to remind her husband of what he’s giving up – sees Abdullah provide a powerful yet understated comment on both her character’s pride and her desperation.

There’s formidable support too from Ahd as the frosty headmistress, and Al Assaf gives an astute turn as Wadjda’s largely absent, though loving father. Al-Mansour, working from her own script, avoids filling the minor characters with stereotypes and uses her own experiences growing up to good effect, telling her story with a refreshing lack of sentimentality and using the camera like a casual observer. She shows a confident appreciation for space and depth, often sprinkling wide shots and long shots into the mix with surprising accomplishment for a first-time director. Filmed entirely in Riyadh, the city backdrop adds that extra level of authenticity without which parts of the movie wouldn’t work, such as when Wadjda and Abdullah go to confront her mother’s driver (Zahir) over his decision to quit arbitrarily. The whole thing is expertly assembled and edited by Andreas Wodraschke, and features a subtly evocative score by Max Richter that supports and enhances the action.

Rating: 9/10 – a formidable first feature from Al-Mansour that rewards the viewer throughout, Wadjda is a cinematic marvel; coming from a part of the world where there are no cinemas (except for one IMAX screen in Khobar) and no movie industry as such, this is nothing short of a major triumph and should be on everyone’s list of must-see movies.