on 29 April 2014
To really appreciate this delightful film you need to watch the two documentaries in the 'Extras' before watching it. It is almost imposssible for people brought up in the Western World to appreciate just how badly women are suppressed in Saudi Arabia - and how brain-washed they are in being made to believe that it is all God's Will! That this film was able to be made at all in Saudi Arabia is almost unbelievable. Directed by a Saudi woman (often totally physically out of contact with the film crew except by walkie-talkie because men were in the area) with a German film crew - there are no cinemas in Saudi - the restrictions on filming were huge. However, incredibly, this film is not anti-Saudi, but a stunningly simple story of a girl who wants to buy a bicycle. This is a film to cherish for its humanity and the willingness of a young girl to do whatever it takes to achieve her ambition despite all the odds being against her.
on 25 September 2013
This is a slightly edited version of my review of the film written for English-speaking friends after I saw it in the cinema in July 2013:
"Oh joy! 5/5 ... This is an incredible film and if, after reading this you want to, you really should try to see it. Yes, yes, I know it's in Arabic with subtitles, but ...
"It's a Saudi/German collaboration, directed by a Saudi woman, about the lives of Muslim women in a run-down, tribal and very conservative Riyadh suburb. The uplifting conclusion will be an inspiration to anyone except perhaps conservative[s of all faiths] ... who will - very wrongly in my view - be indignant at 'all this heresy'...
"So, while the fact that it has been made at all - and is a big critical success - is incredible, it's wonderful to report that this film does for contemporary suburban Saudi life what John Reith said the BBC should do: educate, inform, and entertain. It's a sensitive insight into Muslim women's lives and a window on the teachings of the Koran. It comes from the liberal part of Islam. And it is amusing, sad and dramatic, and beautifully filmed and acted.
"If I had to say which films it reminded me of most, I'd say an unexpected, bizarre and enthralling mélange of If... (Lindsay Anderson, 1968) and Breaking away (Peter Yates, 1979). Yes, it's about badly-behaved school misfits with a dislike of authority and a passion for cycling. I really just can't think why it was that I empathized with the film so strongly!
"There is something odd about the English subtitles in places. But, without seeing the film again, perhaps it was that some of the characters were ignorant of aspects of Arabic grammar and this was being translated deliberately into what we saw on the screen to help our understanding. Anyway, it in no way marred an otherwise excellent experience.
"Quite a few of those of us who'd seen the film [at the showing I went to] ended up afterwards in an eatery next door. I noted we were all staring into space - and then at each other! - with delight about what we'd just seen. And, when I went to Ilford town centre this morning and saw partially- and fully-veiled women coming towards me, I said to myself, 'I know more about you now than I did only 12 hours ago'. What a brilliant result?!
"One for the DVD collection (I trust it'll be on disc soon) in due course ..."
on 30 October 2013
"Wadjda" (2012 release from Saudi Arabia; 98 min.) brings the story of Wadjda, a young girl (I'm guessing 10 or 11 yr. old), an only child living with her mom in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Her dad is often absent due to work, and in addition we later learn he is considering taking a second wife who could bear him a son. Wadjda is a free spirit, wearing western style shoes and clothes and listening to 'evil music' (that would be Grouplove) on the radio. She is friends with a young boy who has a bike and it is her dream to get her own bike, so that she can race him and beat him. Alas, she cannot afford to buy a bike herself as is costs 800 Riyals. But as luck would have it, her school is holding a Koran competition where the winner will get 1,000 Riyals. To tell you more of the plot would surely ruin your viewing experience, you'll just have to see for yourself how it all plays out.
Several comments: first of all, the fact that this movie was made at all is nothing short of a small miracle (the first movie shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, a country where there are no movie theatres), and that it was directed by a woman (another first), Haifaa al-Mansour, is even more astonishing. Writer-director al-Mansour brings us a compassionate story of freedom (or the lack thereof) and what it means to grow up as a woman in Saudi Arabia. While of course a good part of the story focuses on the young girl, equally important (and biting) is what happens to her mother, who must rely on a driver to get her to her job (women aren't allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia) and who must try and charm/convince her husband not to seek a second wife (which is allowed under Saudi law). In fact, the movie screams "suffocation" and "suppression" from start to finish, just watch the multiple scenes at Wadjda's all-girls school (boys and girls are taught separately in Saudi), and even at home (where her mom reminds Wadjda to keep her voice down so as not to be heard outside by men since "a woman's voice is her nakedness"). Wadjda's mom is exasperated that her daughter wants to get a bike, and tries everything to talk her out of it, including cautioning Wadjda that "you won't be able to have kids if you ride a bike"... And maybe it's just me, but I find it unsettling to see women walk around in full "abaya", where at most only the eyes are visible, as if these women are the cause of all evil but men are free to do as they please. That said, this movie does provide a unique glimpse into what day-to-day live is really like in a place like Riyadh, and yet another reason to make this a must-see movie. The performances are generally top-notch, none more so than Waad Mohammed as the free-spirited young girl, but certainly Reem Abdullah as her mother is worth mentioning. Last but not least, the music for this movie, scored by Max Richter, is just beautiful (the soundtrack is available here on Amazon).
I had seen the trailer for this movie a number of times and couldn't wait to see this. The movie finally opened a few weekends ago at my local art-house theatre here in Cincinnati and I went to see it right away. I am happy to say that the screening where I saw this at was PACKED, which hopefully indicates a strong and lasting interest/demand for this movie. I see a LOT of movies and this movie is one of the best I've seen this year, period. If you are in the mood for a quality foreign movie that will open your horizons and along the way teach a few things about humanity, you cannot go wrong with this. "Wadjda" is HIGHLY, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!
on 17 February 2014
I had no idea that film making was illegal in Saudi Arabia and that there are no cinemas. I picked up these two gems from the half hour documentary which is on the Extras. I'd advise you to watch the making of the film and you will see the tremendous difficulties the film crew had to contend with just to film simple takes i.e. a girl walking down the street. Using a state school was expressly forbidden by the authorities.
The film is very well done. Very professional when you consider the circumstances. If you know nothing about the day to day lives of average Saudi Arabians then this is certainly a good window onto it. The girl is excellent in the role and really stands out - as does her little friend Abdullah. The Head Mistress is a right hypocrite and has the faces to match!
If you believe religion is similar to a viral infection then this film will only reinforce that view. The restrictions placed on the most menial human contacts or expressions of one's humanity are all too evident - especially for women. The film is suitable for children as - lets face it - even an ankle isn't seen in this society. I do hope they produce more of these films but I would doubt it. No doubt when the male authorities learn of it they will try and ban it. It may end up being the first and last of its kind.
on 26 November 2013
I saw this film while flying to Mexico - not always the best way to see a movie for the first time, but having lived for 25 years in Saudi Arabia, I had to watch it - I was thrilled to know that a Saudi woman had not only made a film, but that it was about a Saudi girl born into this time. I thought there would be few surprises given my time there, but there were - even I was not quite prepared for the depth of attitude and social constraints on Saudi women. I am not Muslim but I realise that these are cultural restraints rather than Islamic ones, and I hope fellow film watchers will remember that.
A beautiful telling of this girl's story, which must be replicated in thousands across Saudi Arabia. Slowly, change will come, and it will no longer be disrespectful for Saudi young women to ride bicycles, or accept the unacceptable.
The bicycle has, of course, played key metaphorical roles in cinema over the years – notably in films like Bicycle Thieves and The Kid With A Bike – and one of the most remarkable things about (female) Saudi Arabian film-maker Haifaa al-Mansour’s groundbreaking 2012 feature debut Wadjda is that, not only is it a politically brave and thought-provoking piece of work, but it is a debut of such cinematic promise as to be not out of place among the works of the likes of de Sica, the Dardennes or Ken Loach. And, whilst the bicycle as a proxy for 'freedom’ is a relatively obvious premise (as de Sica’s Antonio hopes to free his family from the shackles of poverty and the Dardennes’ Cyril looks to escape from family dysfunction) al-Mansour’s film, and its eponymous central protagonist, Waad Mohammed’s precocious 'rebel’, raises the political significance to a wholly different level as the Saudi schoolgirl attempts to go against the grain of religious and sexist strictures.
But, not only is al-Mansour’s film a perceptive and (largely) uncompromising depiction of serious 'political’ themes, it also provides an intoxicating blend of such themes with moments of great humour (further enhancing comparisons with Loach, in particular), as Wadjda, in her attempt to fund the purchase of her 'dream bike’ leaves no stone unturned – including touting her home-decorated bracelets to market vendors, running duplicitous errands ('God, even your cash reeks of cologne!’) and, most significantly, 'parking’ her doubts over religious observance and entering her school’s Koran competition with a view to securing its cash prize. In parallel with Wadjda’s obsession, al-Mansour also runs a narrative in which the schoolgirl’s mother (an excellent Reem Abdullah) is becoming increasingly desperate over her inability to 'provide’ her husband with a son (as he looks elsewhere, to 'take another wife’). The director is particularly scathing (as you might expect) in her depiction of the plight of Saudi women – a plight reflected, of course, in the difficulty al-Mansour had in making the film (not being able to appear in public whilst shooting the film, etc).
Acting-wise, al-Mansour (despite production strictures) secured remarkable performances all-round. First-time actor Waad Mohammed is a revelation for one so inexperienced, whilst Ahd Kamel (also a Saudi film-maker) is particularly impressive as the strict and uncompromising schoolmistress Ms Hussa. Wadjda has many poignant and magical moments – none more so than the scene in which our eponymous heroine attempts to reinforce her identity by adding her own name to her father’s 'men only’ family tree.
In Waad Mohammed we may have a 'star in the making’, whilst al-Mansour shows enough promise to potentially follow in the footsteps of the increasingly long-line of celebrated Middle Eastern film-makers, such as Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Asghar Farhadi.
on 8 August 2013
Wadjda is the story of a Saudi Arabian girl who wants to have her own bike. It's the first feature length film to be directed in Saudi Arabia by a female, Waifaa Al-Mansour.
The film starts with a school scene, and ten year old Wadjda is struggling against the constraints of school and society. There is tension at home too. Wadjda's father is thinking of taking a second wife. He wants a son, which Wadjda's mother cannot bear him.
Against this background, Wadjda wants to own a bike so that she can enjoy the freedom of racing against her best friend, a boy named Abdullah. To this end, she embarks upon an entrepreneurial drive, selling homemade bracelets and mix tapes from the radio, and running errands. But before Wadjda can achieve her dream of riches, the innocence of her errands is tipped upside down as easily as her bag full of contraband goods. Such things are forbidden in school, in society, where even innocent errands lead to the edges of a skirmish with the religious police.
Thus thwarted, the only route left to Wadjda is that of winning the school's Qu'ran recitation and knowledge competition. 1000 riyals are up for grabs, but this is going to be a long haul, as evidenced by a hilarious scene involving a games console, a huge flat screen television, and Islam's own version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire.
There's a satisfying twist towards the end, and the ending itself is bittersweet, and a bit teary. Just as this is a film about society and the choices available to it, it is a film about a mother and a daughter and sacrifices and choices that individuals make. We don't know what will happen to Wadjda, just as we have no idea how society in Saudi will develop. All we see is individuals developing, and gaining the strength to reach out to the things they want, however small they are.
Although not described as a children's film, I watched this with my children and thought it was a good way of showing them how other societies work as well as being moving and interesting as an adult's film.
See longer review at [...]
on 1 March 2014
I first saw this film when it first came out and then only because it was scheduled on my shift. But I was so glad I saw it. Culture is a difficult subject to describe / understand but this film gives a genuine and non-judgemental insight into life in Saudi Arabia. The fact that the film has such a talented and endearing cast is a bonus. The young girl, who is the focus of the film, is very natural in her role, the co-stars are also well up to their task of creating a scenario that is both realistic and problematic in a country that is not keen on any sort of female empowerment. This is definitely a "feel-good factor" film, you will come out smiling, guaranteed. There are political aspects to the making of this film that have been well publicised but the finished result is both charming and endearing. Excellent.
on 25 February 2015
First and foremost, praise definitely needs to be given to writer/director Haifaa al-Mansour for her bravery and determination to make this film, surprisingly the first to be filmed entirely in Saudi Arabia. It is indeed remarkable that a film of this quality can be made even when certain scenes prevented her from even being on set.
The performances in this film are great, especially the central performance of Waad Mohammed, a first time actress; She is a joy to watch from start to finish. The film also sports strong supporting performances from Reem Abdullah as Wadjda's mother and Abdullrahman Algohani as her close friend Abdullah.
"Wadjda" is also successful in presenting a certain view of Saudi Arabia, its beliefs and customs; it is also a learning experience for those who are unfamiliar with how life in this country is. The film succeeds in presenting themes regarding the role of women in (Saudi) society, family, friendship and freedom. The Quaran recitals are also beautiful and well-filmed.
In terms of similar films, "Wadjda" bears an obvious resemblance to "Bicycle Thieves", which al-Mansaur was apparently influenced by, and also to Satyajit Ray's "The Big City".
All in all, this is a lovely film, which is worthy of all possible praise. Despite all the troubles and difficulties with filming, it is an excellent watch.
on 20 July 2014
A beautifully observed and measured tale, which creates, in wonderful and nuanced performances and direction, a moving picture of contemporary Saudi life. The points are never anything other than thoughtfully and sensitively made, and the backdrop of a distinctly unmagical urban Riyadh lends added power to the magical story that is Wadjda's.