Review: 'Wadjda', Directed by Haifaa al-Mansour

People are most definitely scared of what they don’t know. Arabs are something a lot of people are unfortunately scared of and the stereotypes can run from funny to hostile in nature. And what’s generally been a closed-off society to the west has now been opened up just a little bit so that we can peer a little closer. Wadjda might be perceived as a breakthrough or an average film, but one thing is certainly clear: it opens up the closed eyes of the many and lets the audience into a world where the characters are actually portrayed as human beings.

Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is an everyday young girl. She gets up, goes to school, and teases the neighbor’s son Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani). Her father is barely home—looking for another wife because Wadjda’s mother can no longer bear any children and he wants a boy—and that leaves her and her mother (Reem Abdullah) to fend for themselves most of the time.

What Wadjda wants more than anything in the world is a bike so she can race Abdullah. So intent on this dream that she goes joins her school’s Koran recitation competition in order to win money to buy the bike. The money, however, isn’t the only thing standing in her way of getting what she wants. Ms. Hussa (Ahd), the school’s principal, is strict and looks at Wadjda with disdain for her rebellious and uncharacteristically boyish actions. With her eyes set on getting a bike, Wadjda will try and win no matter what her life and principal throw her way.

Her actions may be considered rebellious to the females in her life and her strict-ruled society, but not to Wadjda, since she is essentially acting like any young girl and doesn’t see what the big deal is. Everything is seen from her perspective and so we are affected by everything as much as she’s affected by it.

Now, a lot of people will talk about the fact that the director, Haifaa Al-Mansour, is the first Saudi Arabian female to direct a feature-length film. So much so, that they’ll probably forget to examine the film itself. And the film, while a little uneven, is generally cute and sweet. It’s driven by Wadjda’s heart and that’s easy to see.    

Waad Mohammed as the protagonist gives a great performance. She’s sarcastic, funny, mischievous and sweet depending on what the situation calls for. She has the nerve to stand up for herself and get what she wants. And while she is often scolded for her tenacity, many admire her for it.  

The film, however, is slightly hindered by its inability to flow smoothly. It feels too slow at times, and a few scenes could have been edited for time and fluidity, but the excellent performances are what carry the movie from scene to scene. The actors are strong and some of the best moments come when Wadjda and Abdullah are hanging out together. They bring joy to the film. It’s their world and the adults are simply there to populate it. The movie is filled with sweet moments and a sense of buoyancy.

Saudi Arabian culture is well-known for being a little stricter, a little more controlled than most. Director Haifaa Al-Mansour knows this and yet chooses to give us an inside look on the day-to-day happenings of Saudi life through the eyes of her protagonist, Wadjda. Through her eyes, ours open a little wider as we see the humanity and not the faceless and one dimensional point of view of the media. Wadjda will open doors and if this is what Al-Mansour's intent is, then she has succeeded.