A good daughter

Visually plain, but the filling is delicious

For want of a bicycle, Wadjda rides into Saudi Arabia’s gender politics

Opens Friday
Directed by Haifaa al-Mansour
Princess Theatre

All Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) really wants is a bike. Not an unreasonable desire for a middle-class 10-year-old, but Wadjda is a girl in Saudi Arabia, which makes her desire tantamount to self-ostracization: Saudi girls don't ride bikes. Wadjda's mother (Reem Abdullah) is unequivocal on the matter: if she's seen on a bike, Wadjda can forget about ever having children. Mind you, Wadjda is irreverent enough, determined enough, that such threats may not dissuade her.

She's not so different, in fact, from Haifaa al-Mansour, the writer/director of Wadjda, and Saudi Arabia's first female filmmaker. Daughter of the poet Abdul Rahman Mansour, she studied literature in Cairo and cinema in Sydney. Wadjda is her first feature, and, though it poses no direct criticism of Islam, it has stirred enormous controversy for its ostensible sacrilegious content.

What it does directly criticize, of course, is gender inequality, though even in this regard one could regard Wadjda more as simply humanist, or sororal in spirit, rather than fiercely feminist. Everywhere Wadjda turns, it seems, lies another reminder of her gender's second-class status: her mother's inability to arrange her own transport and her paralyzing insecurities prompted by the danger of her husband's seeking a new wife; the family tree that only sprouts new leaves when boys are added to the lineage. The film invites viewers into the myriad cloistered realms its female characters inhabit, most especially Wadjda's school, where any display of individuality is severely frowned upon. When the headmistress announces a Koran-reading competition—complete with cash prize—Wadjda sees an opportunity to secure the funds needed for the object she so resolutely covets. But does she really believe that, even in the unlikely event of her taking first-place, she'll be able to use the money on such an iconoclastic investment?

Perhaps most suitable for young adults, Wadjda is, to be sure, baldly didactic, with no detail, not even the songs playing on the radio, left un-schematized. Mansour's visual style is clean, but her characters are flat—only her young heroine is allowed to develop a personality that extends beyond her usefulness as a symbol. Thankfully, Mohammed is truly wonderful in the role, mischievous, never ingratiating—except when Wadjda is trying to manipulate some adult by being blatantly ingratiating—and, in the end, a good daughter to her mother—an inspiration, even.

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