★★★★ / ★★★★
If only she had a bike, Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) would be able to race against her friend, Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), and not end up losing to him for once. But a bike is simply not considered to be a toy for girls. Even Wadjda’s mother (Reem Abdullah) believes that if a young woman rides a bike, she will be unable to have babies. But the temptation to own the green bicycle is strong. It is displayed outside a store; she sees it on the way to school and back. She fears that one day it will be bought by someone else.
The first film to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, “Wadjda,” written and directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, is movie that has the capability to touch any person from whichever corner if the globe because its very essence is universal. The outer shell or conflict involves a girl who desperately wants a bike that costs eight hundred riyals but it is more than that. It is about the transient but critical point in which a person learns to mature a little bit. In her quest to obtain the beloved bicycle, we observe her persistence, her ability to think outside the box, and the joy—and trials—of having to focus and working really hard at something.
The writer-director’s screenplay does a tremendous job putting all the strings of the plot together without the inclination to preach. I admired that it has the courage show a lifestyle that might be strange or foreign to many us but none of it truly comes off as a sharp criticism or an indictment. The judgment comes in through our values and how we were taught how women ought to be treated.
For example, the topic of whether or not wearing an abaya and a niqab is required comes into play. I think many people will be surprised that while it is looked down upon when a woman’s body is seen in a public space by men they are not related to, wearing the over-garment is entirely voluntary—if one wishes to be respectable. The film educates but it always finds a way to make whatever topic it chooses to tackle relevant to the main character.
Though the story is set in the Middle East, Wadjda and I have a handful of things in common. For instance, no one taught me how to ride a bike. I had to borrow one from a friend and though the first dozen or so tries was a struggle, it was so much fun. I found it rewarding. I hold no bitterness against my parents not being there to teach me. Instead, I take pride in it. “I taught myself how to ride a bike.” And it is goes beyond that. Through that experience, I learned very early on that if I really wanted to achieve something and if put myself into it a hundred percent, I could do it and no one would tell me otherwise. No television show or movie or book or adult bestowed me that lesson. I got it on my own.
Watching Wadjda having trouble balancing Abdullah’s bike took me back to a wonderful time when there is no internet and one cannot simply look up “How to Ride a Bike” on the iPhone. People can tell you to lean this way or that but in the end you have to figure it out through trial and error. You have to fall. (And feel embarrassed—as well as pain—when you do.) You must experience fear and learn how to overshadow that emotion—or channel it—through wanting to be in control. It builds character.
“Wadjda” is about simple moments where honesty is a building block on an atomic level. It does not aim to be impressive or quirky or memorable. It does not even attempt to be funny or sad. It just shows a particular life, a culture, and a defined point of view. I think a lot of movies about young children, teenagers, and young adults forget the importance of that. This one does not and that is why the film manages to stand tall above the rest.