Kid on a Bike: 'Wadjda' Tries to Break the Silence

"Wadjda," the first feature film shot in Saudi Arabia by the country’s first female director, Haifaa Al Mansour, gives voice to a feisty Saudi girl.


| November/December 2013



Kid on a Bike in Saudi

At the heart of "Wadjda" is the issue of the female voice. "Women in Saudi are always invisible but they are also silenced," says al Mansour.

Photo By Haifaa al Monsour; Courtesy Sony Film Classics

“My name is Haifaa al Mansour and I’m working on a script about a young Saudi girl.” So began the 2007 email plea Saudi director al Mansour sent to as many Western film companies she could find online that did co-productions. The resulting silence didn’t come as much of a surprise: who would take a chance on a first-time director from a country with no history of showing or producing films—and where cinemas are actually illegal? “We don’t have the cinematic heritage of other Arab countries such as Egypt or Morocco,” al Mansour explains. “People invest in films from directors and countries that know how to make them.” Five years would pass before her spirited, sneaker-clad rebel protagonist received a standing ovation in Venice and widespread critical acclaim.

“A bicycle is no flat screen,” says al Mansour but for Wadjda’s titular 11-year-old, living in a strictly controlled, gender-segregated society, “it’s as much a symbol of modernity.” Wadjda’s mother is incredulous when her daughter asks for one. “Have you ever seen a girl ride a bicycle?” she demands. The film follows Wadjda’s quest for two wheels and her need to prove to her friend Abdullah that she can beat him in a race. Ever resourceful, she discovers a sudden interest in the Koran when a recital competition promises the money she needs. The film shows the narrow age-window in the life of a Saudi girl when she can still get away with being cheeky, questioning the world around her and talking to Abdullah on the street before the black abaya robe beckons and, after that, marriage.

“I come from a very liberal family. I’ve never had a ceiling on my dreams,” explains al Mansour. “But also I come from a small town and I went to a government school. A lot of my classmates there had so much potential and wanted to do so many things. But from the age of 15 they were married off and their lives changed completely. This film is for them. Every ideology in society falls on middle-class girls. They have to protect all the values: that women have to stay home; they have to get married; not to work with men.”

In Wadjda (out now in U.S. theaters), the bicycle could have become an all-too-easy metaphor for freedom. The film, after all, is a protest song but it’s one in which character comes first. Al Mansour cites two neorealist works as her influences: the Dardenne brothers’ Rosetta (1999) and Jafar Panahi’s Offside (2006), both of which register a cruel world through young female eyes. In Wadjda the religious police are mentioned; there’s gossip about a girl caught with a boy who’s not a family member. But mostly al Mansour zones in on small acts of rebellion—Wadjda coloring her sneakers in black so they can pass as school uniform or scribbling her name on her father’s male-only family tree.

 

The most remarkable thing about al Mansour is that she exists at all—for how, in your formative years, do you become a cinephile and a filmmaker when films on TV “suddenly jump” and when, to go to the cinema, you have to drive to a neighboring country? “The best days of my childhood were when we watched a movie. I could see beyond my geographical boundaries,” she recalls. “Most of the films I saw were American or Bollywood; not intellectual or art house films—those don’t exist in Saudi. They don’t rent them in video stores or show them on TV.”