Written and directed by Haifaa al-Mansour, this heart-warming 2012 film was the first movie feature to be filmed solely in Saudi Arabia, and the first Saudi feature film to be directed by a woman. That it got made at all sounds almost fantastical, given Saudi Arabia’s constraints not just on the activities of women, but on film – cinemas were banned for some 35 years from the early 1980s until 2018. Al-Mansour had to direct some scenes from inside a van in case she prompted protests.

The story focuses on feisty pre-teen Wadjda, who attends a strict religious school in Riyadh, and lives in a devout household. She is determined not to let the expectations of her school principal and her parents deter her from her goal of owning a bike (“”you won’t be able to have children if you ride a bike”), so that she can challenge her friend Abdullah (“girls don’t ride bikes”) to a race.

Wadjda’s school is run by the terrifying, glamorous principal Ms Hussa (nicknamed Cruella), who comes out with devastating lines like “Don’t you know that a woman’s voice shouldn’t be heard by men? A woman’s voice is her nakedness” when she hears girls innocently giggling together. However, there is gossip circulating that she might not be as pure as she likes to suggest, and she seems to be wearing Laboutins under her abaya.

Wajda’s mother is also super-glamorous and attractive behind closed doors, although she is fully covered by her abaya when she leaves the house. However, despite her careful appearance and domestic deference, she fears that she is losing her husband, Wajda’s father, who she learns is meeting prospective brides in the hope that he can be provided with a son.

The film treads a careful line between religious and social conformity and incipient adolescent rebellion against the strictures of Saudi Arabian society. Wadjda experiments with nail varnish, sometimes fails to properly cover her hair, is a bit of an amateur entrepreneur and hangs out with Abdullah unsupervised on her roof terrace, but she also sets out to win the money for the much-longed-for bike by entering a Qur’an-recitation competition.

Wajda is persistent and resilient, and the film is often lightly humorous and charming. Overall a very entertaining watch, if shocking at times to a Western eye in its depiction of what is still an intensely repressive regime.

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