If one ever needed a reminder of art’s power, the new film “Wadjda” is just the ticket. Shot completely in Saudi Arabia, filmmaker Haifaa al-Mansour had to undertake extraordinary measures to direct the actors. In her homeland, Women are prohibited from open interaction with men in public, so al-Mansour had to convey messages to her crew via walkie-talkie from a nearby van. Though bicycle riding was just made legal for girls in Saudi Arabia, it is still culturally frowned-upon, and it is precisely this childlike symbol of freedom that the film’s main character, a 10 year old girl named Wadjda desires.
The symbolism inherent in this endeavor is rich and evident. Wadjda, played by the effervescent Waad Mohammed, wants a bicycle, a “vehicle,” which represents freedom of movement. “Vehicle” is also a term often used to describe cultural projects, like al-Mansour’s film. To raise the funds for this bicycle, Wadjda enters a koran memorization contest and sells bracelets at school, all under the watchful eye of her stern principal. To enable the acquisition of her “vehicle,” the film, al-Mansour found foreign funding and contorted the normal filming process to toe the Saudi conservative line.
Superficially, “Wadjda” is an enjoyable experience and beautifully shot, and its meaning deepens when you consider the subtle subversion just under the surface. al-Mansour is allowing the world a rare look at the beauty and hardship within Saudi Arabia, and holding up a mirror for Saudis to view their own society. In a film landscape littered with remakes, sensationalism and vapidity, “Wadjda” is a thrilling breath of fresh air. Its powerful message of empowerment for women, girls and humanity is well worth a look.