Wadjda, the first film made in Saudi Arabia, is a movie about an 11-year-old girl who wants a bicycle and needs to earn money to pay for it. The film, now screening in New York, shines as a universal story about growing up. It also illuminates a culture still alien to Westerners—and alienating to its own subjects. The opening scenes are reminiscent of any eighties-era young-angst movie, from Say Anything to Pretty in Pink. Wadjda is clad in jeans and tee-shirt sporting flirty Americanisms of the type that make even American mothers queasy (“I’m a great catch”). She spends her free time in her semi-suburban bedroom in Riyadh, singing along to American and British pop music and creating music audiotapes for her friends.
Like girls everywhere, Wadjda has a crush on a boy—who she only sees as she trudges to school, her body cloaked in formless black. Abdullah teases her, snatching her embroidered headscarf away as they make their way to their separate madrassas. The innocent exchange sparks acute frustration in Wadjda. She can’t catch up with Abdullah because he has a bike and she doesn’t. Thus begins the girl’s coming-of-age odyssey, one fraught with obstacles.
Girls don’t ride bikes, Wadjda hears repeatedly from her mother and her (all-female) teachers. Such a ban isn’t superfluous from the point of view of controlling society; one feels independent and in charge when pedaling a bicycle, a state of mind that an authoritarian government frowns upon. But as Wadjda secretly practices her balance on Abdullah’s bike, she grows more determined to get one of her own. Her desire for spokes and wheels grows as she begins to realize everything else that girls and women aren’t permitted to do. She’s reaching the age where teachers want her to drape her face and hair on her way to school, lest she pose too much of a temptation to the catcalling men she meets along the way. Besides her father, who spends most of his time away from home, the only men with whom she can interact are grandfatherly types too old to pose a sexual threat, including the shopkeeper who puts a bike on display.
Wadjda also comes to understand that things won’t get much better when she’s older. She watches her mother, beautiful but aging under her veil, fret that her husband is about to take a younger second wife. In between trying to keep herself sexy at home, Wadjda’s mother must endure a sweltering commute in the back of a shared van driven by a foreign man.
Repression isn’t confined to women, though. The Kingdom’s oil-based economy, overwhelmed by cheap imports, limits everyone’s options. To make money, Wadjda braids together bracelets and sells them to her school friends. On a trip to the mall with her mother, she spots a vendor selling lower-quality samples and eagerly offers to sell her product wholesale. He dismisses her, noting that he gets his supply from China for a fraction of the cost at which she could produce the item. She goes home and ponders a mug stamped in English, “Made in China.” When Wadjda castigates her mother’s driver for his rude treatment of his women passengers, Abdullah, her young friend, steps in and threatens him with exposure of his status as a likely illegal migrant. It’s hard to tell who is more alienated here: the women who resentfully hire a foreigner to drive them or the foreigner who resentfully spends years away from his family to serve these strangers in a strange land with no chance of assimilating into society. Even Wadjda’s father is sympathetic. One senses that he’s hunting for a second wife not because he’s rapacious, but because his parents want a grandson, not a granddaughter, in a world where only men matter. They’re no longer willing to wait for his first wife to provide one. He didn’t create this world, but he must live by its rules.
Wadjda succeeds in part because social commentary never overwhelms the story. In one poignant scene, Wadjda and Abdullah pass by the home of a family whose son became a suicide bomber. Wadjda observes that dying in such a manner must hurt. Abdullah blithely notes that dying for God hurts no more than “a pinprick” and that such “martyrs” get “70 brides.” Wadjda opines on such foolishness with adolescent sarcasm, saying she would blow herself up only for “70 bikes.” It’s funny, as is Wadjda’s comment that you could land an airplane on the bushy mustache of a local politician whose image is depicted on a poster. But more than 12 years since 9/11, and after more than a decade of continuous war and turmoil rooted in part in the actions of 15 Saudi suicide bombers, moviegoers in New York and around the world may not know how to react.
“It’s supposed to be funny and people don’t laugh,” notes the film’s female director, Haifaa Al-Mansour, in a Reason interview. The New York audience laughed more easily at the scenes of Wadjda entering a Koran-recital contest to win money for her bicycle. Other scenes, including mentions of Saudi support for the Palestinians, are even more daring for a Saudi filmmaker, but to say too much would give away a good plot.
Since Wadjda’s global debut, British and American commentators have wondered at the Saudi government’s embrace of the film. Saudi Arabia nominated it for the Oscars’ foreign-language category. Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, one of the Kingdom’s powerhouse investors, provided some financial backing. But as Al-Mansour observes, Saudi Arabia has no movie theaters. “You can watch films in privacy at home but you cannot watch them in public,” she says. The days in which you can ban content by banning physical spaces, though, are over. Maybe Saudi authorities shrewdly figured that people would watch the movie in their homes regardless of what the government did. Government support might diffuse some of the film’s potency.
And perhaps the movie isn’t as subversive as outsiders may think. Al-Mansour notes that while filming in the Kingdom, she largely hid herself in a van and directed her actors via video feed. She respected public sex-segregation mandates because “I really didn’t want to create a scene.” Speaking of the Arab Spring, she notes dismissively that “it’s easy to go outside and spend the night shouting,” but that it’s “difficult to start making things.” Wadjda is less a call to revolution than an appeal to introspection, and, possibly, gradual change. Of her youthful characters, Al-Mansour notes that “they want to fall in love”—an endeavor fraught with controversy across all cultures.
Wadjda ends with Wadjda peering out at a busy highway, watching male drivers in pick-up trucks pass her by. Does she want to join this arid highway culture, or change it? Is she invigorated or depressed by her recent experiences? Only one thing is certain: no matter where you are in the world, bicycles are nothing but trouble.