In advance of the Birds Eye View film festival, the BFI preview Wadjda, which tells the remarkable story of a young girl growing up in modern-day Saudi Arabia, and her quest to buy her own bicycle. Seemingly unaware of just how unconventional her interest in owning a bike is, Wadjda tells anybody who will listen about her plan to save up for a bike, encountering the ridicule of her mother and just about everybody else in the process.
Although Wadjda is most definitely a film about a bicycle, beneath the surface of the narrative is an insightful portrayal of the individuals and institutions that define the role of women in Arab culture today. Led by an entirely female cast, the film sheds light on the role of women in shaping the dreams and the acceptable modes of behavior for young girls growing up in the Saudi culture today. Initially both Wadjda’s mother and her head mistress (both powerful representations of the domestic sphere and the educational institutions in Saudi Arabia, respectively) scoff at her plans to own a bicycle, drawing attention to the hostility towards the changing role of women which is often prevalent in patriarchal cultures. As the narrative unfolds, though, Wadjda opens up a space for these women to evolve, allowing them to demonstrate the extraordinary potential amongst women to transform popular opinions of the possibilities for women today, and to alter the fate of the Saudi women of tomorrow.
Although Wadjda certainly engages with the issue of gender inequality in the Arab world from an optimistic point of view, credit is due to filmmaker, Haifaa Al Mansour, for her handling, and understanding, of the complexities that inevitably go along with this controversial subject matter. As we’ve seen recently with the political upheaval taking place in countries across the Arab world, the process of carrying out radical institutional reform in countries such as Egypt and Libya is a transitional one, and one that brings with it great challenges for the people in these countries.
Reflecting on this, the story-line addresses the implications for Wadjda should she succeed in obtaining the coveted bicycle. As such, in anticipation of one day owning a bike, Wadjda herself is seen to take affirmative action to actually learn how to ride the bike throughout the film. Although this point is addressed through the film’s subplot, it is nonetheless an important point to address, and one that transforms Wadjda’s message from that of an idealistic to a visionary response to the current situation of women in Arab culture today.
Released worldwide this summer, Wadjda is the first feature length film to be shot inside the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and was directed and written by Haifaa Al-Mansour, a female filmmaker from Saudi Arabia. For a full line-up of films showing as part of the Birds Eye View festival, celebrating women filmmakers, visit www.birds-eye-view.co.uk.