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Wednesday 24 July 2013

Wadjda, Film (2012), written and directed by Haifaa al Mansour, 9* out of 10

Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is a 12 year old girl in a religious state school run by a severe headmistress (Ahd Kamel), but Wadjda’s priorities lie with secular subjects, pop music, sport and fun. At home she lives with her mother (Reem Abdullah) who works as a teacher. Her father (Sultan Al Assaf) comes home from long stints of shift work at his factory. Although Wadjda’s parents love each other their marriage is in crisis. Wadjda and the neighbours’ boy Abdullah (Abdullrahman Algohani) have formed a competitive friendship. When he get’s a bicycle and she does not Wadjda is determined to get a bicycle one way or another, and she is a bit of an entrepreneur, opportunistic and creative.

The story of the girl applying creativity and determination to carve out a bit of freedom for herself on the streets of her neighbourhood could be told in many contexts. What makes “Wadjda” special is that this story plays in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where it was conceived, written and filmed by a Saudi woman, Haifaa al Mansour. Will Wadjda manage to get what she wants? Will Abdullah stick with a strong-willed friend? 

Writer and director Haifaa al Mansour her German crew and her strong Saudi cast have created very authentic and enjoyable film that tells a story of an intelligent young girl looking carve out a slice of freedom for herself in the public space. In doing so she has to deal with some harsh limitations for women and girls in Saudi society. She also sees how her mother tries to cope with her own difficulties. The director presents in a low key, factual manner. Each time the young girl and her mother have to decide whether to accept, fight or circumnavigate the obstacle.. 

The contrast between women’s lack of freedom in public space and relative freedom in private space when only other women or close family are present is striking. Behind an abaya (the cloak) and niqab (face veil) covering body and face, there often is an educated woman in make-up and dress which are not that far removed from women in Western societies. The same goes for their aspirations.

Although co-financed by a Saudi prince, "Wadjda" is considered too controversial by the Kingdom's authorities to be seen in Saudi Arabia. That is a pity. It deserves a sell out audience numbers there -and everywhere else.

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