The first of its kind: Wadjda, Saudi’s tomboy heroine
The first film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and by a female director, Haifaa Al-Mansour's, Wadjda has been widely praised by critics and audiences alike, telling the story of a 10-year-old who wants to buy a green bicycle to race against her friend Abdullah.
11 August 2014
Hearing of a Qur’an recital competition in school, Wadjda knuckles down memorising passages from the Qur’an and in turn, becoming a model pupil, all with the hope of winning the cash prize of 1000 riyals (roughly £158) whilst keeping the reasons for her devout study a secret.
Achieving her dream of buying the bike proves to be very difficult, living in what seems to be a very traditional Saudi household. One amusing aspect of Wadjda are the moments of subtle comedy about the fear of adolescent girls, Wadjda is fast approaching an age where she is not allowed to meet a boy or go out of the house without her veil or quite importantly for her, ride a bicycle. Riding a bike is seen as dangerous to a girl’s virtue, as confirmed by Wadjda’s mother who when in shock says she won’t be able to have children if she rides a bike.
However, Wadjda is established as something of a rebel. We catch glimpses of the jeans and battered converse shoes she wears underneath her Abaya. She also listens to western pop music on the radio, hangs around with a boy, Abdullah and has her own small business selling friendship bracelets to her schoolmates.
Many reviewers and bloggers have harked back to De Sica’s 1948 film Bicycle Thieves, where a bike symbolises freedom, which becomes more interesting within the realms of Wadjda, as riding a bike is widely frowned upon for women. I don’t want to give away too much but we learn throughout the film that the adults reinforcing Wadjda’s restrictions and potentially limiting her happiness are not always the most virtuous people themselves. As Wadjda is a resourceful, witty young girl, her cunning schemes can be seen as just one of the ways that children readily learn from the examples that are set to them by adults, understanding the world around them and in Wadjda’s case, manipulating her surroundings to achieve her goal.
It’s a feel good film with a heart-warming story and just a glimmer of a happy ending. World cinema can unite cultures that may have seemingly opposing beliefs and values through film and universal desire for happiness. We can all find something enjoyable and heart-warming about this film, showing the universal themes of hope and perseverance.
Films like this, made through the eyes of a child provide a subtle and honest critique of the world, comprehending complex issues and relationships through innocence. But what it comes down to though, is that Wadjda is a celebration of youth, exploring what happens when children are given agency to change their own environment and to move ahead within their surroundings. Director, Al-Mansour tells Wadjda’s story in a delicate and intimate way whilst still remaining respectful of the Saudi Arabian culture whilst exploring freedom and self-empowerment.
Wadjda is being screened at FACT as part of the Liverpool Biennial A Needle Walks Into A Haystack, an exhibition about our habits, our habitats, and the objects, relationships and activities that establish our immediate surroundings. It is about effecting larger questions facing contemporary life and art, from an intimate and tangible scale that’s within everyday reach.
So, considering Wadjda as part of the Biennial, I think we can draw clear comparisons between Wadjda and Milena; the subject of much of Sharon Lockhart’s work with is also exhibited at FACT, blending reality and fiction beautifully. Both girls have a tangible dream within their reach and colourful personalities to guide them through.
Sharon Lockhart discovered that Milena’s passion was to write an autobiography whilst filming her 2009 film Podworka. This then led to them working together, documenting parts of Milena’s life through art. Both projects explore self-empowerment and a resilience to traditional perceptions about women, values and her conservative surrounding and prove that character and strong will can overcome any difficulty.
Wadjda is being shown on Wednesday 13 August as part of FACT and Liverpool Biennial film programme, which is curated by Sharon Lockhart, who has her first UK solo exhibition at FACT until 26 October. Tickets are available from the Box Office, by phone on 0151 902 5737 and online.