Sometimes the simplest stories can be the most rewarding. Wadjda is a film about a young girl whose only desire is to own a bicycle so she can race her friend. It sounds like a minor picture, but consider the circumstances under which Wadjda was made; this is a film made in Saudi Arabia, a country with no cinemas, and it is a film about female independence made by a Saudi woman. The existence of this movie in itself is something to celebrate, but what's more worthy of applause is the skill with which Haifaa al-Mansour has told this story in her feature debut, and the way she has woven layers of political subtext and cultural insight so delicately into the narrative. It is a fine filmmaking achievement in every sense.
Through her short films and TV appearances, al-Mansour has been an outspoken advocate for women's rights in Saudi society, and Wadjda explores these themes by showing us the daily obstacles faced by a mother and daughter. The title character, played with feisty charm by Waad Mohammed, is a 10 year-old who lives with her mother (Reem Abdullah) in Riyadh. Her parents are still together, but her father is often absent and the mother is troubled by the nagging suspicion that he is looking for a second wife, one who will be able to bear him a son. In Saudi society, women's prospects are limited to the roles of mother and wife from a very young age – one of Wadjda's classmates has already been married off – and we wonder how an independent spirit like Wadjda will be forced to conform in years to come.
Right now, all she wants is a bike, and this motivation is the driving force behind the story. She pleads with her mother for the 800 Riyals needed to buy it, but she is told in no uncertain terms that riding a bicycle is not a pastime for girls, and that it can even damage her ability to have children. Undeterred, Wadjda begins looking for other ways to make money, but every attempt seems to contravene some aspect of the strict moral code imposed upon her. She makes armbands to sell at school; she demands cash to facilitate a meeting between an older girl and a teenage boy; she even enters a Qur'an recital competition that is offering a cash prize. These enterprising route almost inevitably land her in hot water with the school's headmistress Ms. Hussa (Ahd Kamel), who strictly lays down the law even as rumours circulate that she may not be so virtuous herself.
The manner in which al-Mansour drops brief but telling examples of the everyday patriarchy and oppression faced by Saudi women into the screenplay – from being told they cannot touch the Qur'an if they are on their period, to the way in which they must serve food to a roomful of a men without being seen – is an impressive feat, as is the fact that she has brought this tale to the screen in such an accomplished fashion. In a country where women can't drive, mix with men they are not related to, or been seen with their faces uncovered in public, the director often had to hide out of sight while directing exterior scenes for her film. But there is no hint of such obstacles in the finished product; no shaky camerawork or evidence of scenes being caught on the fly. Her direction is composed and fluid, simultaneously conscious of the tale she's telling and the environment in which it is taking place.
Throughout Wadjda, the female students at Ms. Hussa's school are told not to raise their voices outside in case men overhear them – "Your voice is your nakedness," they are warned – but al-Mansour's clear, perceptive voice is one of the most welcome sounds in this year of cinema. This witty, involving and moving drama develops beautifully towards its emotionally satisfying climax, and it is a tremendous breakthrough for both Saudi cinema and female filmmakers. All of that in a simple story about a girl who just wants to ride a bicycle.